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In-Home Energy-Use Displays, HANs Lack Consumer Interest

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In-home energy-use displays are big part of many utilities’ AMI plans, but they do little for Conrad Eustis, director of retail technology development at Portland (Ore) General Electric. He is not enthused about the current state of home-area networks (HANs), either. Eustis, a 25-year veteran at PGE, is “a realist,” he told us recently.

“We learned during a small pilot in 2003 that the level of interest in energy-use displays dies away,” even among consumers whose interest was already clear because they had signed up for TOU pricing, he said. “Half of the pilot participants never came to the website we set up in addition to the displays, and most played with the in-home device for a week and then stopped using it.”

That lack of interest is why the use of in-home energy-use displays is minimized in the 835,000-meter AMI rollout nearly completed in PGE’s service area, he said. The rollout is using meters from Sensus and Elster, with communications from Sensus. Usage data will be presented to consumers on a website created using software from Aclara.

Before PGE offers displays, “customers need to be educated, and there needs to be a killer app in the home for managing the data,” Eustis said. Right now, no such application exists. Google’s Power Meter, though popular, is “visible in the political realm, but what can people do with it?” he asked.

Current displays can create estimates of future use, extrapolate from other consumers’ experiences and analyze power-use trends, “but nothing is as good as the historical data we can collect with AMI and present on the web,” he said.

In any case, displays offer consumers no real control over energy use, so creating a killer app might be difficult, he said.

“Everything in your home is driven by electric motors or pure electric conversion. So — unlike, say, a Prius, which you can learn over time to drive more efficiently — there’s nothing to adjust in real-time efficiency,” he said. “There’s nothing you can do to run a washer more efficiently. You can run it when power costs less, but why do you need a real-time display to do that?”

The GridWise Alliance honored Eustis in June for advocating within the home-to-grid community for developing interoperable interfaces between appliances and other devices. But he is equally realistic about the limits of HANs.

“They are totally useless unless appliances are ready to accept information, like pricing signals. The whole discussion about the HAN is totally premature until appliances can get that information,” he said. He took part for a while in the OpenAMI initiative, which sets out utilities’ requirements for the structure of price signals and related matters. But he left the group “because they were standardizing all these utility applications, but the problem was no one was talking about how to standardize communications for appliances.”

The energy industry “is expecting a lot of change in a short time from appliance makers” when it wants appliances to be sensitive to power’s cost at different times of day even though utilities may implement TOU schemes differently, Eustis said. The appliance makers “are stepping up to the plate,” though slim margins on appliances make even more challenging the costly innovation needed to adapt appliances to pricing signals. And manufacturers are also concerned price signals may have different formats in different geographical areas.

“I’ve been worrying about this,” he said.

This story has been reproduced from the August 19, 2010 issue of Smart Grid Today with the permission of the publisher, MMI Inc.