Energy & Broadband:
As natural as peanut butter & jelly
June 09 2010

by tmartin on June 9, 2010

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A BROADBAND NETWORK is like a slice of that delightfully squishy Wonder Bread: It is is a carrier for other things.

The region’s OpenCape open access middle mile network is pretty cool, but it takes some peanut butter to turn it into a tasty sandwich.

In other words, it is the applications that ultimately matter.

A few weeks ago, I spent some time with Energy Efficiency Program Manager Kevin Galligan at the Cape Light Compact (CLC) talking about this very thing … and learning how energy plus broadband adds up a slashed electric bill.

CLC is an organization created on behalf of the 21 towns of the Cape and Martha’s Vineyard and administered through Barnstable County. It provides regional energy efficiency programs negotiates for lower cost electricity for the region’s 200,000 plus customers.

Last year it ran a small pilot test of the kind of application that can yield big returns to individuals and businesses, not to mention helping the entire region manage that scare resource, energy.

What CLC learned from the pilot program is this: if you monitor it, you can manage it.

The program began last summer, when CLC deployed a technology called smart monitoring in 100 homes.

Smart monitoring uses a broadband connection to report your home’s energy activity to a server. You log into the server via a secure web page, from any web browser. There, in real time, you can watch your house use power.

I don’t know about you, but my primary relationship with my electric bill is dismay.

Aside from a generic ‘turn off the lights’ approach, I don’t really know how actions impact that hefty monthly hit. Even if I did know for sure, I’d still have to wait a whole billing cycle to see the result. I’d still have to guess whether or not the 17cents saved was a result of unplugging the TV … or some other random blip.

Turns out that smart monitoring gives you a whole new relationship with that bill … and with your appliances.

For example, every appliance has a unique fingerprint when it comes to power use.

Galligan describes a study participant who liked to monitor his home’s power use from his office. One day, he spotted a huge spike in power use. His teenagers were home! Ah-ha – caught in the act!

The man promptly picked up the phone, called the kids and learned that …

His daughter had just put in a load of laundry!

Washers and dryers create spikes of demand. What he was seeing wasn’t teens gulping down power – it was the unique “appliance-print” of his house’s own washer.

Every appliance has a print – and some, like washers, dryers, and ice makers, have a print that features large spikes of use, spikes that probably sounds like a lot of pennies being dropped into the meter.

Smart monitoring has immediate impact. It lets you hear those pennies so well that the study group cut its power use by a tenth.

The change in behavior was especially marked when compared with the study’s two control groups.

One of the control groups was comprised of people who expressed an interest in energy monitoring. The only difference between them and the study group was that one set had the option of watching their own consumption in real time, while the other didn’t.

The second control group was similar in composition to the study group, but had not expressed interest in energy one way or another.

The results were unambiguous:

  • The group with the real time monitoring ability reduced energy consumption as compared to the same time period a year earlier by 10.8%.
  • The group who was interested but lacked the tools cut consumption by 1.3%.
  • The disinterested group cut consumption by 1%.
  • Technology made the difference. CLC has posted the report and all its gorey statistics as a PDF athttp://www.capelightcompact.org/documents/CLCSmartEnergyMonitoringPilotFinalReport3-31-2010.pdf

    If you like light reading along the lines of “empirical review of energy consumption effects through a comprehensive energy use analysis…” this report is for you!

    Seriously, the report – which was done by a neutral third party evaluation firm – has some interesting obseverations, including a word of caution: Do not take household connectivity or technical suitability for granted.

    This technology is reliant on broadband.

    Without the broadband bread, the peanut butter is a mere spoon of glop.

    A company called Grounded Power in Gloucester (http://www.groundedpower.com) worked with CLC to develop a device that connects a home’s electricity panel to the network.

    The broadband network becomes the carrier for the house’s data. The data is delivered to a secure website also developed by Grounded Power.

    Phase 2 of the project, scheduled for later this year, adds a glance device — that is, a small physical device with red-yellow-green lights that tells you how your real time power use is stacking up to your set goals. Could this be the next hot work of art for the trendy home’s fireplace mantle?

    The next phase also adds businesses to the study mix, to see how real time monitoring impacts use in that environment.

    Even cooler things are in the pipeline — like when communication with the house becomes two-way. You, the homeowner, can look at appliance activity and tell a specific appliance to adjust. If you see how your ice maker is sucking down power in greedy spikey gulps, you might send it a command to stop making ice during peak energy consumption time.

    Just imagine it … A network carrying 200,000 houses and business spaces talking to their owers in real time. Better yet, image saving 10 percent off your electric bill. Best yet, imagine the energy-challenged Cape as a whole cutting consumption 10 percent.

    Engergy and broadband — application and infrastructure — meld together make one amazing PB&J sandwich.

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