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Smart Energy

From ON Magazine, Issue No. 1, 2010

Robert LeFort
Robert LeFort of Ember describes low-speed, mesh networking as “the Internet of things.” Photograph by Asia Kepka

From an energy perspective, we’re surrounded by dumb devices. But hopefully not for long. In this interview with ON publisher Gil Press and editor Christine Kane, Ember CEO Robert LeFort explains his company’s role in bringing smart energy to homes and businesses.

How smart is energy today?

Except for building automation, where there have been a lot of advances in the last 20 years, the answer is “not very smart.” For most people, energy is the third largest bill after the mortgage and car payment. Capgemini identified 15 electrically significant loads in a typical house. Yet we have no idea how much energy each of these uses consumes, at what cost, or where the biggest savings could be gained.

A colleague was saying his father-in-law unplugs the VCR every night because of the blinking blue light. He’s saving milliwatts, but in the meantime he’s got a freezer in the garage that wastes more energy in one night than unplugging the VCR will save in a year.

On the utility side, some companies know so little about their customers’ energy consumption that, if there’s a power outage, they find out when the first person calls to complain. They know how big the outage is based on how many calls they get. That’s not a very efficient control system.

Ember describes its technology as wireless, low-speed mesh networking. Can you explain what you do?

The name Ember is short for “embedded radios.” We’re a network and a platform company whose products allow OEMs to put embedded radios into what have always been dumb sensors and controls: things like thermostats, pressure and humidity sensors, light switches, and motion sensors. This turns them into smart devices that can communicate with each other and with smart meters, which also incorporate Ember technology. It’s kind of “the Internet of things.”

What does a smart meter “know”?

It knows how much energy you’ve used this past hour, day, and month to date; what are the periods of peak consumption for your household, and how much it’s costing you so far. This information is stored locally and is also communicated back to the utility.

As smart devices become commonplace in homes, the smart meter will also collect data from the individual devices that make up the home area network or HAN—the refrigerator, thermostat, dishwasher, remote controls—and allow them to be managed individually.

With better information and better control comes higher efficiency and convenience.

How will the consumer access the information?

A display device will display energy consumption data, but in a simplified form. You won’t be able to tell how much a kilowatt/hour costs, but with one touch you can find out how much you’ve spent on energy this month. If your utility charges different rates at peak and off-peak hours, a green light will tell you when energy is cheap and a red one will tell you when you’re paying a premium. At some point, you’ll be able to see which devices are consuming energy, from most to least.

By the way, we’re careful not to talk in terms of changing consumer behavior. The network should be smart enough and simple enough that a consumer can decide, “My goal is maximum comfort,” or “I don’t want to spend more than $200 a month on my energy bill,” and the system can educate him on what his options are.

What’s the value of devices talking to each other?

I’ll give you one example. Most bathrooms have a ceiling fan that you turn on after a shower to eliminate humidity. But you have no idea when to shut it off. Or maybe you forget to turn it off, so it runs all day. Now if you have a smart thermostat with a humidity sensor in the room, it can tell the fan to turn off when the humidity returns to a normal level. Is that hard? No. But it’s an example of the hundreds of different things you can do once you have the intelligence that comes from devices sharing information.

"In the future, many major appliances and electronic devices will include smart energy features." —Ember CEO Robert LeFort

What are some major deployments that incorporate Ember technology?

Last year, Gothenburg, Sweden, finished installing 300,000 smart meters in homes, with a backhaul network that provides two-way communication between the meter and the utility. The initial goals were fast and accurate meter reading and better quality-of-service information. If a homeowner calls to report a problem with a bill, a service rep can access the meter in a few seconds. With two-way communication, the utility can deliver new features and value-added services to consumers, which they are just starting to do.

How about the commercial side?

Hospitality is a solid application for us. Our devices are in three new hotels in Las Vegas’ City Center. In the Aria, which has 4,000 rooms, there are 75,000 to 80,000 Ember chips in devices that control the room lighting, the shades, the entertainment system, the room safe, and the door lock. Interestingly, the hotels are doing this for comfort, convenience, and personalization. For example, when guests first enter their rooms, the blinds open to provide some natural light. A bedtime setting might close all the shades and turn off the lights. Guests can change settings or create their own, using the TV remote. We provide the wireless connections to make sure all these things talk to each other.

With all the data that’s being collected, who’s going to own it?

That’s a huge issue, and it’s far from settled. Today, in reality, the utility owns the data. And for that reason, I think utilities will look more and more like service companies, offering value-added services like equipment maintenance. If I see that your furnace isn’t performing efficiently, I can call you up and recommend a cleaning.

But the government is starting to say the homeowner owns the data, raising the question of who will manage it in a way that offers value to consumers. Telcos and ISPs are showing interest. They certainly know how to manage content and deliver services to the home. And Cisco, GE, and Google are all looking at what their play is going to be.

How will smart energy get rolled out to homes on a large scale?

The first step is installation of smart meters by the utilities. In the United States, Texas, and California are the furthest along. They’re installing 20,000 meters a day. Next, they’ll start doing in-home pilots that incorporate smart, in-home devices into a HAN, particularly thermostats and displays.

In the future, many major appliances and electronic devices will include smart energy features. GE, Whirlpool, and others have already made announcements to that effect.

In the meantime, smart plugs—which sit between the appliance and a standard electrical socket—will provide basic monitoring and management for existing products.

What are possible barriers to wide adoption of smart energy?

A big factor is how regulatory bodies behave with the utilities. If you look at what made the Internet successful, it was openness, it was layers, it was competition. That is going to be hard to duplicate in the current regulatory climate.

That doesn’t mean smart energy will fail. But it will move slower than it could, and therefore we will reap the benefits more slowly.

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