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5/12/2006
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Internet-Connected Appliances Could Lower Energy Bills

A pilot test in Washington and Oregon lets dryers and water heaters check electricity prices and decide if it's worth waiting until off-peak times.

Jerry Brous' clothes dryer drives a hard bargain. Every five minutes, it checks the current electricity price over the Internet. If the price is above the threshold Brous set, the dryer doesn't run. Save the clothes for later--and don't get soaked.

Brous is one of 200 people in Washington and Oregon taking part in an experiment that uses real-time pricing data to let people make smarter choices about energy use. It's a tiny project with the potential to significantly change electricity markets at a time when energy is back on top of public policy concerns.

Dryers and Water Heaters
The GridWise Initiative, led by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, is testing dryers, thermostats, and water heaters that are wirelessly connected to a server, which uses a broadband connection to fetch prices. Homeowners also can set monthly energy budgets and monitor in real time whether they're sticking to them. In another experiment, 150 dryers are equipped with a chip that will respond to instability on the power grid and shut off the heating units on the dryers for a few minutes. Spread across millions of homes, this program could provide a shock absorber in the grid, giving producers the few minutes needed at times of peak demand to bring new power online.

The project takes a market approach to trying to lower power consumption--or shift it to off-peak times. That could let utilities put off building new power plants, says Don Hammerstrom, Pacific Northwest National Lab's project manager.

Whirlpool and Invensys Controls modified Kenmore dryers and water heaters so they can respond to instability on the grid. IBM also customized the middleware that enables the interaction. "This has never been done live," says Ron Ambrosio, an IBM manager on the project.

Blackout Memories
GridWise is funded by money Congress set aside to prevent blackouts and brownouts, which often are caused by overloads during peak power periods.

On Aug. 14, 2003, the largest blackout in North American history left 50 million people in eight U.S. states and Ontario without power. Most people are back to taking the power grid for granted, but that showed how strained the network can get. Rising energy prices also have conservation efforts back in style.

The idea of price-based power use could have some appeal within data centers as well, for batch processing jobs that consume a lot of electricity but aren't time sensitive.

Brous and his wife, however, are focusing on their water heater, programming it to be off after 8 a.m. and in the afternoons, avoiding peak power price times. "I'm saving 15% off my electric bill every month," Brous says.

Internet-connected appliances have been discussed for years, but they've never seemed very useful. The GridWise project suddenly makes connecting your dryer to the Web sound sensible.

This story was updated June 13.

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