Research engineers at the U.S. Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) picture the home of the future as a smart home that will talk to the grid. The engineers hope our homes will be able to dynamically coordinate when power is cheap, when appliances should turn on and off, and when renewable energy resources are available to offset peak demand. To be truly smart, the home will not only receive communications about energy availability but also respond.
In order to develop their smart home ideas, the NREL engineers are evaluating home automation, sensor technology, and energy management products in laboratories modeled around a real home. The Automated Home Energy Management Laboratory (AHEM) is outfitted with standard outlets, panels, and appliances so that products are tested in a realistic context. The NREL is also planning to run large scale testing of clean energy and electrical grid integration in the future Smart Power Laboratory.
The testing will help figure out how appliances, home automation, energy management, and HVAC (heating, ventilating, and air conditioning) systems must work together inside a home to reduce energy use and costs. According to engineer Sudipta Chakraborty,
"People are really looking at the whole integration of these energy systems. At the residential level, you'll have your house with a photovoltaic system on the roof, with smart appliances inside, and we'll look at the data to see how those systems work together. The utility companies are interested in seeing how they can control those appliances to offset loads and make the peak power demands more stable. To do that, all of these pieces have to work together, which they don't do today."
The NREL is the technology lead and manager for the Building America program, which aims to make energy efficiency cost effective for residential buildings. Long term, the program hopes to achieve 50 percent energy savings for new construction projects and 40 percent savings for building retrofits over the minimum code. A major goal of the NREL is to develop a system in which homeowners are aware that their home is part of a larger energy network. Helping people understand peak demand times, realize how and when to reduce energy use, and desire to do so will go a long way towards the DOE Building America program goals.
Senior Engineer Dane Christensen frames the importance of smart home technology and power grid communication,
"Work we did seven years ago is now being adopted into the current energy codes. We are ahead of industry because it takes time for results of our research to make their way to the consumer. From where we sit right now, it looks like there is a big challenge in getting beyond the 50 percent energy savings for new home construction and 40 to 50 percent savings in retrofits, without home energy management technology in place. The technology created and tested at NREL's Smart Power Lab or Automated Home Energy Management Lab will enable those home-energy puzzle pieces to fall into place — helping people turn the lights off when nobody is at home, helping people adjust their thermostat when they are not at home, helping people understand that energy is expensive at a particular time of day so they can avoid running an energy-intensive appliance until power is less expensive — all of that helps save energy and costs across the board."