AP Energy Writer
COLUMBUS, Ohio—Appliances are getting smarter when it comes to using electricity, and that could reduce your utility bill and help the environment. And the best part: You will not even have to do a thing to make it work.
What is Changing?
The electricity grid is like the road system. Too many cars on the way home from work and not enough lanes on the highway means you might be late for junior's soccer game.
The grid that takes electricity from the power plant and gets it to your home gets jammed up at rush hour in the late afternoon and early evening when you and your kids come home and turn on TVs, iPods, computers, charge the cell phone, do laundry, make dinner and, one day, plug in your electric vehicle. And it's worse on a hot summer day when the air conditioning is running full blast.
The difference is that utilities always must have enough lanes so that they're ready the moment you flip the switch.
All the demand between about 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. can make producing power more expensive. And if a utility worries about running short, it will say that it will need you to pay more money so it can build new power plants.
That's where the appliances come in. They are designed to cut back on their use of electricity at times of peak demand without disrupting your lifestyle.
The appliances being developed by such companies as General Electric and Whirlpool will come equipped with a built-in device that will respond to signals directly from the utility through new kind of meters that are being placed in homes.
Let's say you are putting a load of laundry in the dryer. If the dryer receives a signal to cut back on its electricity use, it will continue to tumble, but it will reduce the heat for a few minutes.
A refrigerator will delay its defrost cycle or a dishwasher can put off starting until demand for electricity is lower.
General Electric will introduce later this year a hybrid electric heat pump water heater that it says will require about half the energy of a standard water heater. It has the potential to cut energy consumption by up to 85 percent during times of peak demand.
Homeowners typically will program their appliances to allow these features during installation so they may not even know the appliance is responding to a command to cut power. They also will be able to override the commands so that if, for example, they are having a dinner party that night the dishwasher will run on schedule.
"The consumer will determine how, when and what signals to respond to," said Henry Marcy, vice president of global technology for Whirlpool Corp.
How much you will pay for one of these dryers or dishwashers has not been determined yet. You can bet it will be more expensive, similar to the 10 percent or so difference in price between appliances that carry the Energy Star rating for energy efficiency and those that don't.
But, like anything else new, costs should come down over time.
The key to getting you to use these appliances and saving money is to give you a break on your electricity bill for doing a load of dishes at at time when power costs the least. Such programs can make up the additional cost for the appliance in a year or two and then save you money from that point going forward.
Utilities are beginning to roll out more programs that do just that. Smart appliances will act on signals from new kinds of meters being installed across the country that cue them to run when power is the cheapest.
Such a price structure will provide people with the incentive to use more power when it is least expensive. That also can have the added effect of reducing the number of additional power plants a utility will have to add as demand for power rises.
And appliances that can curtail consumption based off a signal will become more important as additional renewable sources of electricity come online since wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine.
GE said in a pilot program in Louisville, Ky. — involving GE employees and Louisville Gas & Electric employees — that the appliances and energy monitors in their homes led them to change their behavior that resulted in as much as a 20 percent decline in energy consumption.