TECH: Digital Temperature Controls Get Warm Response


Pretty much everything these days comes down to saving our electrons, and utilities haven’t always been the most cooperative partners. While the picture has improved substantially for grid-connected renewable-energy technology, not much has changed as far as energy-efficiency incentives go. Getting the right legislative pressure on utilities to change their tune requires lots more public support and involvement. 

Which is why I was pleased to learn that two new energy-saving devices got positive reviews from a pilot project outside Seattle recently. In this U.S. Department of Energy-sponsored study, participants learned to use web-connected digital controls on thermostats that allowed them to tailor fairly precisely how they wanted to tie home temperatures to fluctuations in the price of electricity.       

Participants could view constantly updated electricity prices online and continually assess the trade-off between comfort and cost. those who responded to real-time prices cut their electricity usage at peak times by 15 percent, on average—and saved 10 percent off their bills.

"It shows that if you give people simple tools and an incentive, they will do this," Robert Pratt, a staff scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, told the New York Times.

The philosophy behind the design was to keep a really simple interface for consumers, both in the home and online. But that’s just a front for the fairly sophisticated software and market-analyzing tools supplied by IBM to sift through the constant buying-and-selling of electricity that occurs with each tiny price fluctuation, according to The New York Times. It’s effectively day trading, but for thermostats.

A second study investigated the usability of an electronic “shock absorber” for times of peak demand on the power grid. A small electronic circuit board was designed to detect stress on the grid.  Under certain conditions, the controller might disable some functions, such as the heating capability of a dryer. A brief interruption might be all it takes to stabilize electricity supply and demand and avoid reliance on peaker plants, which run only when demand is particularly high. Because these plants only operate a few hours a day and, like all plants, are expensive to build, they tend to be significantly less efficient than baseload power plants.

The study showed that the retrofitted controllers didn’t cause problems for the appliances, and participants reported few complaints with how they affected their lives and laundry.

Both projects were conducted by Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, in Richland, Wash.

If you’re interested in what you can do in or around your home, check out the DSRIRE database, a comprehensive guide to energy-efficiency incentives in the United States for state-by-state listings.

By Sandra Upson 


 

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