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ARCHIVED - Can smart technologies reduce home energy use?

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The strain on power utilities during summer heat waves and other peak periods can mean higher energy costs. Technologies that automate smart energy choices could help keep the grid — and prices — more stable.

A woman and young girl hang laundry to dry on a clothesline.

Many Canadians are trying to use less energy at home.

When Katherine Smith of Hamilton, Ontario lived in England for a year, she was impressed by a low-tech and energy free way to dry her clothes — an airer. It’s a ceiling-mounted clothes rack that has ropes and a pulley system so it can be lowered when draping damp clothes and raised to send them back up to the ceiling.

“In England, people commonly had these in their homes — it takes advantage of the fact that warm air rises,” Smith says. A single mother, she is motivated to find ways to keep her electricity bill down. Back in Canada, she installed an airer and saw her electric bill drop by $25 per month. She also had a smart-meter installed, which let her monitor her hourly power usage and move some activities to times when rates were cheaper. She and her son also started to use electricity around the house more conservatively. “We turn out lights when we don’t need them and wash dishes by hand; we really think about what we do.”

With power costs rising, many Canadians are looking for ways to cut their home energy use. Researchers at the Canadian Centre for Housing Technology (CCHT) in Ottawa hope to find out how technology can make this easier, and especially how Canadian homes can become “zero-peak” power consumers.

“We’re focusing on finding ways to get home electricity use down to zero, or near zero, during peak-use times,” says NRC’s Dr. Guy Newsham. Peak-use is the time of highest demand for power from the electrical utilities. It commonly occurs in the late afternoon to early evening, when people arrive home from work and start cooking meals, yet many businesses are still open.

The most worrying peak-use times in southern and eastern Ontario are during summer heat waves when air-conditioners are running. “People might use three times more electricity on a hot summer afternoon than on other days,” Dr. Newsham says. In most other parts of Canada, which don’t experience the same prolonged heat and humidity, the most important peaks are mornings and evenings in winter. To meet large increases in demand, extra power plants have to be fired up, or power has to be imported, and those costs are high. Eventually, these costs are passed on to the consumer.

Researchers are analyzing how homeowners consume electricity during peak periods by using smart meter data provided by partner utilities. They will use simulations to explore options for house design and operations that could reduce demand during peak-use times, and then apply the most promising techniques to a full-scale test house at the CCHT.

This graph shows average energy use for a large sample of houses in southern Ontario in 2008, showing energy use per hour for a hot (peak) summer day versus all summer days. By around noon, energy use is more than 100 percent higher on a hot summer day than on an average day. Evening peak use on a hot day is about three times higher than morning use on an average day.

This graph shows average energy use for a large sample of houses in southern Ontario in 2008, showing energy use per hour for a hot (peak) summer day versus all summer days. By around noon, energy use is more than 100 percent higher on a hot summer day than on an average day. Evening peak use on a hot day is about three times higher than morning use on an average day.

Saving energy with simple changes

One approach to be tested comes from Ontario’s voluntary peaksaver program. In that program, a signal from the utility ensures air conditioners don’t run constantly during peak time. “The a/c might run for 15 minutes and then be turned off for 15 minutes, even though it hasn't reached the desired temperature. The temperature in the house will slowly rise, but often this isn’t a hardship and it really helps with grid stability,” says Dr. Newsham.

Other techniques that could be tested include:

  • Turning on the a/c earlier in the day to pre-cool the house before a heat wave hits — to see if it can be left on for a shorter period later in the day.
  • Turning off the heating element in clothes dryers for short periods, allowing clothes to dry with just the air cycle until the heater comes back on again.
  • Using timers on devices such as dishwashers and clothes dryers, so they go on automatically during non-peak times.
  • Installing motorized blinds on windows to reduce the need for cooling.

While technologies can help to cut energy use, Dr. Newsham observes that human behaviour is just as important. Researchers will adjust energy use patterns in the test home as though a typical family were changing when or how often they use appliances or other electrical devices, similar to what Katherine Smith and her son are doing.

Creating a zero-peak house

Researchers will also look at using batteries to store power during low-use times and supply extra power during peak times. Ideally, the combination of storage batteries, changes in behaviour and automated technologies could result in a “zero peak” house, meaning a house that draws no electricity from the grid during peak times. The zero-peak period might last for only an hour or two and happen only a few days of the year. But those hours could make a difference for energy suppliers — and ultimately to energy costs. Approaches such as these are part of a larger concept called the Smart Grid, a rapidly growing movement to add intelligence to power delivery to improve grid efficiency and reliability.

Dr. Newsham says that while real homes won’t be reducing their peak power use to zero in the near future, the test house will be a proof-of-concept that it’s possible. “We’ll be able to identify technologies and strategies that are actually realistic and cost-effective. The result will be a house that can substantially reduce its peak use,” he says. End

Meet the Watt family

The twin test houses at the Canadian Centre for Housing Technology (CCHT) are fully equipped with everything an average Canadian family would use — washer and dryer, dishwasher, lights, various appliances, hot water and more. There are even four “artificial” people in the house.

“They’re light bulbs, but give off about the same amount of heat as people do,” says Dr. Newsham. They are nicknamed the Watt family.

The CCHT is jointly operated by NRC, Natural Resources Canada, and Canada Mortgage and Housing Corporation.