Grid-connected appliances... still such a bad idea

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It's the time of year when publications run stories about glitzy new consumer gadgets, including smart appliances. One such story in USA Today provides proof that the era of grid-connected appliances is still a ways off.

 

It's not that we don't have the technology. It's that a) the costs outweigh the benefits and b) those meager benefits don't flow to the people who pay the costs.

 

We do have the technology to make appliances grid-savvy. For instance, USA Today describes the Whirlpool 6th Sense Live line of Wi-Fi enabled home appliances, which are designed to run only when electricity costs are lowest. They can access a database of real-time energy pricing to determine when it's cheapest to run. But USA Today admits that "it might save you a few dollars in energy costs each year... but the appliances themselves cost a few hundred dollars more than their non-smart counterparts."

 

In other words, the payback would be 20 to 50 years -- far beyond their expected life.

 

Grid-friendly appliances

More than a decade ago, researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory developed a grid-friendly chip that is far less expensive than the full-scale Wi-Fi connectivity described above. This chip simply senses the condition of the grid by monitoring the system frequency and automatically turns off appliances for a few seconds to a few minutes in response to a power grid event.

 

But let's say that inclusion of a grid-friendly chip results in a retail price that is $50 higher. That is a meaningful amount in the hyper-competitive white goods market. And why would a consumer pay an extra $50 for an appliance whose benefits flow to the local utility? Only with a utility rebate program or a similar incentive could we align it so the benefits flow to the person paying the extra cost.

 

The larger story is that appliance manufacturers continue to experiment with technology but have yet to find features consumers truly want. The USA Today story describes a refrigerator with cameras inside that can be accessed on your smart phone. And an oven that lets you access the temperature control and timer via a smart phone. Hardly the features that will make most consumers eager to spend a few hundred dollars extra.