Trillium News

The Smart Grid Brings Smart Tips for Energy Use

Knowledge is power? Not according to Google and Microsoft. These firms and many others have recently rolled out energy efficiency tools designed for consumers to use on the emerging smart grid. The hope is that knowledge will bring less power, fewer blackouts and reduced carbon emissions.
Investors are beginning to sit up and take notice of smart grid technologies, especially since the Obama Administration’s stimulus plan directed over $4 billion to the young industry. There’s been much talk about how a smart grid can reshape the utility industry, but smart grid technology also will bring about changes for you and me. This spring Google offered a glimpse with the introduction of PowerMeter, a web-based widget that displays and tracks information on home electricity use in near real-time. Turn on your heater and watch your energy use spike. Put on a sweater instead, flip the heater off and feel gratified watching your energy bill fall. Similar technologies are being developed by large players such as Microsoft and start-ups such as Tendril. Some companies are focusing on bringing this technology to smart phones, such as Trilliant’s Energy Valet, being developed for the iPhone.
Accessible to about one percent of U.S. households, Google’s PowerMeter isn’t yet ready for primetime. Fortunately, there are other tools already available for the rest of us. In July Microsoft released  Hohm, an application that offers customized tips for saving energy. I tested Hohm with my mother and she was relatively pleased. After surviving a fairly tedious survey that takes an hour to fully complete, she was given a personal energy profile including a dozen energy saving tips prioritized by costs and savings. Some suggestions were too generic, but others were very helpful. She got detailed advice on a water heater upgrade she’d been thinking about, plus a few simple fixes that can save her hundreds of dollars a year and reduce her carbon footprint by thousands of pounds.
While Microsoft’s Hohm offers good suggestions for one-time home improvements, Black & Decker’s Power Monitor is better suited to change everyday habits like forgetting to turn off the lights. The Power Monitor is a handheld display that wirelessly connects to a sensor attached to a regular meter.  The portable Power Monitor then displays the cost (per hour or month) of current energy use. You can also isolate the cost of running individual appliances like a TV or toaster. The Power Monitor reminds me of the Toyota Prius and its dashboard display of its engine and fuel mileage. Just by monitoring this display, many Prius drivers learn to drive differently and conserve fuel. For some, it has become a game of sorts.
It’s nice to see tools like PowerMeter, Hohm, and Power Monitor making it easier than ever to conserve electricity at home. While the rocky economy has delayed many wind and solar projects the advantages of energy efficiency remain strikingly clear – using less is cheaper and cleaner than using more.