GE tools make 'dumb' appliances 'smart' for energy management

For all the talk about the energy-saving promise of smart meters, which allow two-way energy data communication between ratepayers and their utility providers, it’s still just mostly potential. In hopes of getting more consumers engaged in tracking and managing their home energy use, GE this week announced a raft of new products, launched under GE’s Brillion home-energy-management-system brand.

The new products build on a device called the Nucleus, a home energy management device. When GE launched the Nucleus in mid-2010, it anticipated that consumers would use the device to collect, save and relay cost and energy-use data from their smart meters to the Internet. (The Nucleus does this communication via a set of ZigBee and WiFi radios.)

However, explains Michael Beyerle, GE’s innovation marketing manager, in many cases the smart meters are still missing from that equation. “There is a difference between the speed at which utilities and companies like GE are bringing solutions to market,” he says. “Some people have asked for solutions in places where smart meters haven’t been rolled out yet. And even in communities where smart meters have been rolled out, utilities aren’t always ready” to start working with consumers on energy management.

With the Whole-House Sensor, one of three products GE unveiled this week, users can still collect energy-use data and upload it to the Nucleus device. The Whole-House Sensor effectively acts like a smart meter, in terms of its ability to make energy-use data available to users. If a user already has a smart meter, the Whole-House Sensor can be mounted on any 240-volt device, such as a pool pump or clothes dryer.

GE also launched Smart Plugs, which users can plug into standard 120-volt outlets. They act as sensors for electronics and appliances, communicating energy-usage data to the Nucleus energy manager. Users can then tap into this data via online software in order to track how much energy each of their appliances or home electronic devices use. (GE also sells appliances -- under its Profile brand -- that come with integrated sensors that communicate with the Nucleus, so users who own these appliances would not need the Smart Plugs.)

GE also recently introduced the GeoSpring water heater, which can also communicate with the Nucleus and change its energy settings based on the users' setting or on demand signals from a utility. “I’ll be able to change temperature settings, from a cell phone – if, say, I’m going on vacation for 10 days. All of this communication is enabled via the Nucleus,” Beyerle says.

To test the effectiveness of GE’s Brillion home-energy-management system and its ability to help homeowners without smart meters lower their energy consumption and expenses, the company has partnered with Georgia-based Flint Energies on a two-year pilot program. Flint Energies will send signals to the Nucleus device in each of 10 homes. Whenever the utility anticipates high power demand on the grid, it will transmit this information to the Nucleus, which will in turn transmit the signal to the thermostat and other home appliances to reduce their energy use. In return, the homeowners will receive a 87-cent-per-kilowatt-hour rebate. (Homeowners will still be able to override the signals and continue without lowering their power use.)

Best Buy was slated to bring the GE-developed Nucleus to market in early 2012, but the retailer is not yet carrying the item, Beyerle says. He could not comment on when the retailer might begin to offer the Nucleus.

Beyerle expects the Whole-House Sensor, Nucleus and Smart Plugs all to be available in the next two months, and says GE is in discussions with a few retailers that he couldn't yet name. The estimated retail costs of the Whole-House Sensor, Nucleus and Smart Plugs are $199, $149, and $99, respectively.

Photo courtesy of GE.