Smart Appliances Are Coming, But Where’s the Smart Grid?

The smart grid — like the smart home — is another great technology idea left hanging in limbo. Until a smart grid standard is established and implemented, buying or building a smart anything could be an exercise in incompatibility.

Still, according to {complink 8879|IMS Research}, {complink 8019|General Electric Co.} plans to begin shipping smart washers and dryers by the end of 2011 or early 2012, to be followed shortly by refrigerators. Although consumers can buy these products right away, their potential will not be realized until markets — in this case, the US — can agree on a smart grid communications standard.

The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) is the US body that is overseeing the development of smart grid standards. In addition to communications, the standards body is addressing the capabilities, priorities, architecture, release plans, responsibilities, governance, and conformity issues associated with a massive utilities-related undertaking.

Phase 1 of NIST’s three-phase plan — recognizing a set of existing standards that can be used in a smart grid roadmap — has already been completed. A set of 16 initial standards, including some from the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers Inc. (IEEE), the International Engineering Consortium (IEC), and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), has been identified. Some of these will need further development.

The second phase — establishing a standards panel to make recommendations — has also been completed. Phase 3, which will look at product conformity, the smart grid framework, and establish testing and certification, is now underway.

Still, that's a long way from being completed. GE's appliances will each contain a port to which a communication module can later be inserted. This architecture, with external communication radios, allows GE to move forward with appliances that will be quickly, and fairly easily, modified to connect to the grid once the technology and communication standards are agreed upon, the company says.

“The fact that GE will have appliances in homes, ready to be updated (much like the HD-ready TVs that have been shipped) means we are witnessing the beginning of a smart appliance market,” says Liz Cruz of IMS Research. IMS predicts that by the end of 2020 nearly 10 million appliances will have been installed in US homes.

I, for one, am not convinced consumers will buy a smart appliance based on the expectation of future use. How many people bought an HDTV before HD broadcasting services were available? NIST has set no timetable for the adoption of a standard, and even when that happens, a smart grid infrastructure will have to be built. “The next step and current missing piece of the smart appliance puzzle continues to be the utility companies,” says Cruz.

Other manufacturers are taking a different approach to designing smart appliances. These companies are waiting for a firm agreement on communications technology standards so they can integrate the entire package within the appliance. The benefit of this approach is that it will require no action from the consumer to modify the appliance to connect to the grid. (This is one of the reasons the smart home has languished — although there is a communications standard and supporting equipment, home owners have to be fairly savvy to make devices communicate with one another.)

Cruz says that dynamic pricing will create demand for smart appliances: “With dynamic pricing a financial incentive, and therefore consumer benefit, is created for purchase of smart appliances.”

Again, I'm not so sure. In spite of positive news coming out of the manufacturing and IT industries, there are still a number of economic indicators (such as employment figures) fueling continuing uncertainty in the consumer market. Appliances are big-ticket items, and buying one now for its untapped potential doesn't make sense. I think smart appliances will go the way of the digital television transition of a few years ago: Some enterprising company will develop a retro-fit kit and make a killing; or the government is going to provide retrofitting for next to nothing. Appliances will be upgraded as they break — not because they're any smarter.

19 comments on “Smart Appliances Are Coming, But Where’s the Smart Grid?

  1. DataCrunch
    December 15, 2010

    Hi Barbara, we live in interesting times.  I am a big fan of conserving energy and of energy efficient appliances.  I don’t think people will be buying appliances at this point because they claim to be “smart”, but because they are “smart” will most likely also be more energy efficient, and consumers prefer that.  This assumes that have the word “smart” attached to an appliance, doesn’t mean more expensive.

    As for the smart grid and coordinating standards between the manufactures, utility companies, etc.., this may take a bit of time I’m afraid.  Having a smart home that is all in sync with the smart appliances and all being used at optimal energy efficient times in conjunction with the smart grid seems like a huge undertaking.    It will be interesting to eventually see how really smart is “smart”.

  2. Ariella
    December 15, 2010

    I've seen a number of discussions about smart houses and smart grids.  One overarching concern about them is an ability to override a setting that assumes power will not be used if the need should arise.  As committed as people are to saving energy (and/or money) most don't want to be inconvenienced. 

  3. jbond
    December 15, 2010

    I would agree most people don't want to be inconvenienced but what about security issues. If you can override the system when you have power problems what about someone else overriding your system?

  4. Ariella
    December 15, 2010

    Do you mean that someone other than the central grid control would be able to tap in to cut off your power?

  5. jbond
    December 15, 2010

    Yes, Ariella that is what I was wondering about.

  6. Ariella
    December 15, 2010

    I see. So long as these things are operated by computer, it would be possible to hack in. Even the most secure systems have breaches at times.  

  7. AnalyzeThis
    December 15, 2010

    I think GE announcing “smart” appliances at this point is rather silly. It's too early, the existing demand for such products is near non-existent, and I can't think of an easy way they could market it correctly, especially given that right now, the smart technology is useless.

    It's been a little bit frustrating to see the lack of process that has been made with smart grid technology infrastructure, however. Long term, it is essential that our electricity distribution systems are upgraded.

    Smart grid technology holds so much promise: greater efficiency, lower costs, increased reliability, better integration with solar and wind technologies, etc. But that promise has yet to be realized and there are some very basic things which have yet to have been agreed upon. Unfortunately, I don't foresee large-scale upgrades to the existing electricity distribution network in the U.S. within any of our lifetimes.

  8. prabhakar_deosthali
    December 16, 2010

    I do not have the exact idea of what is called 'smart' in the smart appliances that are entering into the market. But I believe that they would have some kind of an intelligent controller that would be able to communicate. If these appliance are able to talk to the internet then we don't have to wait for that smart grid to be established. Many of those control functions of these smart appliances can be handled over internet. My idea of a smart appliance is that it has less lectronics compared to a standalone appliance. By having network connectivity such applainces will be able to download their control software, recipes etc from the net ( downloading a driver in the PC context for a plug-in device). This can give a tremendous leverage for the manufacturers to add new features to the appliances at customers place over the internet. 

  9. Mydesign
    December 16, 2010

         Prabhakar, a very interesting question, what is “smart” in smart appliance. Smart home technology means, in home where all electronic devices around a house act “smart” or in more automated way. In future we can expect all major appliances in home will take advantage of this technology either through home networks or by Internet. Smart home technology is the way for normal electronic appliances to communicate with each other, consumers, and even manufacturers. That is it can convey the message to customer by producing some sound or by signal. If it is net connected it can communicate to remote persons also.It’s more of an intelligent type appliance rather than the normal switch to operate mode.

         Many people are considering that a smart home is one to be well networked and some others feel that, it is a home with appliances that will allow the consumer to do little to no work. But strictly speaking a smart home consists of the combination of all these features and many more. Along with all the consumer products networked, but they have to make life easier also. Now a day’s lots of developments are happening in the similar areas and currently the developments are happening in implementation for all rooms in the house, in particular the kitchen and the living room.

  10. tioluwa
    December 16, 2010

    prabhakar_deosthali  got the point, what exactly is smart? from comments so far, its obvious that we see it differently.

    Barbara is definatley talking about smart in terms smart energy management and control, but that is not all that smart is about.

    Truely, until the grid gets smart, advanced smart energy management will not be possible, but within a home, there is a lot of “smart” that can be put into things.

    Advanced sensors and home energy meansurment systems can help a home user manage energy efficiently, which is smart enough.

    The Zigbee alliance is really paving the way for this, with an IEEE protocol for smart home automation, smart metering and remote control of appliances.

    We should be seeing alot of smart getting into homes in coming years even before the grid gets smart.

  11. SP
    December 16, 2010

    Smart home is what everyone would like to have but problem is everyone's definition of smart would be different. But yes in households where kids are all grown up and husband wife both work, smart home idea really works fine. Its been a while that smart home idea is reavolving around but no real action has happened. I guess it would be great if everyone can afford robots who can be programmed as desired remotely…

  12. Barbara Jorgensen
    December 16, 2010

    Great discussion folks! Here's how IMS and GE define “smart:”

    Note 1) IMS Research uses the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturer’s definition of smart appliances: “a product which has the capability to receive, interpret and act on a signal received from a home energy management system, utility, or third party energy service provider, and automatically adjust its operation depending on the signal's contents and settings from the owner”.

    I'm not sure that smart appliances or the smart grid is any more susceptible to hacking than any other utility or network. I think in this case “smart” will be limited to the ability to read and communicate back and forth on the grid. In terms of appliances, I'm not overly concerned about security but it is a good questions readers raise: if the appliances are hooked by computer into a smart grid network, can access be gained through a back door we can't even imagine yet?

    Stranger things have happened

  13. mfbertozzi
    December 17, 2010

    Well, as of today we are very close to definition Barbara reported below; just to give you an example, recently Stanford  has studied flu propagation; researchers have provided people with a personal sensor which was doable to report periodically health parameters' status via hot spot wireless connection hanged up by each one time-to-time.

  14. DataCrunch
    December 17, 2010

    Security experts already have stated and proven that the new “smart” utility meters that are being rolled out to homes and that are eventually supposed to connect to the “smart” grid are vulnerable to hacking.  They have already proven that the meters can be reprogrammed to allow intrusions.  Hackers would be able to raise a homeowner’s power bill and can also allow hackers to turn on and off power at will.  The security experts have brought these vulnerabilities to the attention of the utility companies.  Let's hope they listen.

  15. Barbara Jorgensen
    December 17, 2010

    Dave–thanks. I didn't know that, but it would make sense. Such an activity would benefit the utilites companies and hurt consumers. I agree–let's hope the utilitiy companies pay attention.

    An anecdote from here in Mass.: A nearby city's water-use monitoring system was flawed from the get-go and consumers were getting under-billed for water for years. Suddenly, the city realized this and updated the bills–to the tune of $100K in some cases. Residents were told they should have been aware their water bills were too low and to pay up.


  16. hwong
    December 19, 2010

    Smart meter implementations by utility often emphasize on security. Utility care very much about this hence they are investing alot of money for products like IBM's datapower in between the communication network. That way people cannot hack into the grid. It works just like the way you type your credit card number online and they ensure that it is safe. I wouldn't worry too much about security as utilities pay highest priority to security

  17. Barbara Jorgensen
    December 20, 2010

    Thanks Hwong. I would imagine utilities have a lot to protect in addition to their investment–I'm sure they are a target for eco and/or terrorist attacks as well. I'll admit I wouldn't expect utilities to be so security-conscious, but I'm glad to hear they are.

  18. Himanshugupta
    December 20, 2010

    I heard and read about the smart grid, appliances and technology about an year ago. What fascinated me was the ability to be able to save money and energy by using these appliances. But i will think twice before i throw away my old but still running washing machine/fridge for some smart applicance, which is still untested. It is for sure a potential market for the appliances but i do not see much growth until the industry/government standards are in place. Another big problem will be of privacy protection, as is currently the case with internet, phones and mobiles.

  19. itguyphil
    December 21, 2010

    I agree. Much like software, I like to wait for the beta and RTM versions to run for at least a year or two before buying. Let some services packs and bug fixes release before jumping on the bandwagon. Otherwise, I feel like a guinea pig…

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