Technology for energy-smart homes is here. Why aren't more people using it?

Marita Mirzatuny

These days, the future is often in the news. It’s not uncommon to come upon articles about cars that drive themselves, vacation trips to space, and automated smart houses a la the Jetsons.

I don’t know much about space tourism or self-driving cars,  but I do know that smart homes and the associated technologies are already allowing for the possibility of environmental benefits and economic savings that are nothing short of futuristic.

Our utility grid is the largest machine in world. Unfortunately, however, this machine exacts human and environmental costs all the way down the line — from extraction to combustion. But we’re at the beginning of an energy revolution in home energy management systems that may make consumers key players in solving these problems.  

What are home energy management systems?

The platform for increased interaction between consumers and the energy grid will be home energy management systems (HEMS), devices that are part iPad-for-your-home and part thermostat. Some of these devices already exist - from apps that allow users to play games and earn rewards while saving electricity, to GPS-enabled programs that  cool down your house when you’re on your way home from work in the summer .   

It has been forecast that the number of households with HEMS will grow to more than 40 million in 2020. (Companies like SONY and Hitachi are in the R&D phase with HEMS devices, while Nest and Check-It already have some on the market.) And if HEMS can be combined with services we already use — like utilities, security, cell and Internet, then more consumers will buy in.

Why aren’t more people using home energy management systems?

The problem, so far, is that technological advances in our electrical grid have tended to benefit the utilities more than the consumer. For example, by the end of 2015, approximately “45% of all U.S. households will be served by smart meters. But as few as 10% of those meters will be enabled for two-way communications” via HEMS.

Lacking that interactive connection with the energy grid,  consumers won’t fully benefit from HEMS’ capabilities, like providing them with real-time information on energy costs and usage, which will let people save money by using power when its costs are lowest, and even earning money by selling unused, locally generated power (say from rooftop solar panels) back to the utilities.

That’s where the future of energy usage is today. We’ve reached the point where we have the technical ability to create a true interactive smart grid that benefits consumers and utilities and the environment. But we haven’t yet put in place the state-by-state rules and regulation that will allow all that futuristic technology to take full effect.

There are market-based obstacles that can be overcome, and EDF is working in a number of states – from Illinois to California to Texas – to get the regulations needed for a true smart grid that will bring convenience, savings and environmental benefits to consumers, utilities and the environment.