Electricity Consumption and Autonomous Control: Technology and Prices to Devices for Decentralized Coordination

Lynne Kiesling

One of my favorite things about our house renovation is the spiffy, brandy-new Kitchenaid refrigerator that you can see in the corner of this kitchen photo:


It’s well-designed, it’s energy-efficient, it keeps our food and drink beautifully … and, because I am particular about mineral and biological tastes in water, I love its built-in water filter for both water and ice cubes.

Yesterday morning as I was pouring water for tea, the “filter” button on the door display turned orange, and the display now shows the message “order filter”. Without my having to do anything, the designers of the refrigerator programmed it to communicate this information to me when the remaining filter capacity fell to 20%.

In my Pavlovian way, what do you think I did? I naturally looked up the part number and did an online search for the filter. I found a filter store with prices that are 5% off of retail, I don’t have to pay sales tax (which is meaningful in Cook County, which has the highest sales tax in the country), and I got an email about two hours later that the filter had already shipped. In fact, I bought two, so I won’t have to think about this again for another year. DONE! And I was happy that my refrigerator was intelligent enough to communicate this information to me.

But think about it … this capability is just the tip of the iceberg (pun intended!). What if, instead of just an orange light on the display, the filter depletion triggered one of two things, depending on how I set it up?

1. An email to me with links to the correct part, so I don’t have to dredge out the owner’s manual, and links to filter vendors.

2. Automatic filter ordering from the online filter vendor of my choice; the refrigerator could arrive pre-programmed for a specific Kitchenaid-approved vendor, but through a remote web interface with my refrigerator using my house’s wires or wireless I can choose a different one if I prefer, and I can choose to order multiples at the same time, so my refrigerator interface can keep track of my filter inventory.

These are the transactions of the future. This is the beginnings of embedded intelligence in appliances, and the individual consumer’s autonomous control that such intelligence enables. It enables autonomous control to lead to overall decentralized coordination in the electric power system. Think about it …

Notice that in this future I can choose how much human involvement I want to have in the filter replacement transaction; I can either receive the information and do it manually, or I can program the appliance, “set it and forget it”, and a filter will arrive without my having to go out of my way to deal with it.

All that’s required to make these transactions and this functionality possible is ethernet capabilities in the appliance, and some programming and thoughtful customer service-oriented interface design on the part of the appliance vendor. More simply put, the fridge just needs an IP address and a spiffy, user-friendly web interface through which I can see it on my house’s network and adjust its settings to suit my preferences (and changes in my preferences over time). Adding the technology to add that functionality would not increase the cost of the appliance substantially, and they could start by doing it in the top-end of the product line and then proliferating it through the broader mass-market products.

Now take the next step: imagine and dream well beyond the autonomous filter replacement transaction. Once the refrigerator has an IP address and is on my home network, I can control it remotely with the right network access and user interface. Now dream big … I can program it to cycle its cooling in response to changes in electricity prices.

Remember that in aggregate in the residential economy, refrigerators consume more electricity than space heating, water heating, or lighting; how big a share of electricity consumption your refrigerator accounts for depends on its features (especially age) and the other uses in your home, but in any case, the fridge is a pretty serious chunk of your typical house’s consumption. That means it’s a substantial share of your electricity bill, and that if you can reduce its power use without harming your food, you can be just as well off but save yourself money. Due to the physics of thermal mass, you can cycle off refrigeration for a while without damaging food, especially if the doors stay closed.

Imagine a hot August afternoon, and you have an IP-enabled refrigerator on your home network. Moreover (and this is the crucial part), you have a contract with a retail energy service provider (either your utility or a competing retailer) under which you are charged real-time prices for the electricity commodity portion of your service. This contract also means that your home has a digital meter that can communicate this price signal into your home and its devices and appliances; the meter is the communication gateway.

This arrangement opens up a wide range of possibilities for you. You can program your refrigerator’s compressor to turn down or off if the electricity price goes above a certain set of trigger prices; notice that this functionality is continuous, it’s not just an on-off thing. Say you’re a working mom, and you want to know when your kids get home from school; you can program the refrigerator to send you an email or an SMS if the door opens during the hours you are at work (because what’s the first thing kids do when they get home? Eat!). If you are particularly concerned about your budget, you can set an electricity budget for your refrigerator, and have it modify its settings and behavior to manage itself to your budget target. Or suppose that you care deeply that the power you consume is only generated from renewable energy; then you can set your fridge to cycle off if all renewable sources on your network are maxed out and your next kilowatt will come from a fossil fuel generator. And if you are having an important dinner party and have delicate, expensive food in the fridge, you can override all of this stuff.

And you can do it autonomously. Or you can adjust it through a remote access web interface.

Now imagine that quite a few of us have this setup in our homes. What is the aggregate outcome? Individually, we each use the technology and the retail price contract to adapt our behavior to suit our personal, individual best outcomes. We use the technology and the pricing to save money while still getting the functions we want from the appliance, and from our electric service. In aggregate, these autonomous choices change demand patterns in ways that reduce demand in expensive periods, which will induce wholesale electricity market prices to do a better job of reflecting both consumer preferences and the actual costs of supplying power at a given time. Those changing demand patterns, and the ability to change behavior autonomously, can also lead to reduced energy use, particularly if it means less use of less energy-efficient (higher heat rate) generators to meet peak demand.

Imagine how technology and retail choice enable us to enjoy that kind of autonomy and achieve these benefits through decentralized coordination. I look forward to that future enthusiastically.

5 thoughts on “Electricity Consumption and Autonomous Control: Technology and Prices to Devices for Decentralized Coordination

  1. As someone who worked for several years as a software engineer for an electronics company, what puzzles me is that this hasn’t yet happened. The required technology (an embedded microprocessor and a network/wifi/bluetooth interface) is not only available, but is now cheap: perhaps an extra couple of percent on the manufacturing cost. And there was an article several years ago in Scientific American outlining this sort of domestic demand management guided by spot electricity prices. So where is it?

    There’s been talk of using changes in electricity frequency to work out when the grid is heavily loaded – and thus when electricity is likely to be scarce – but frankly given the widespread adoption of broadband, it would be easier to skip a generation and get pricing (and production) information over the internet.

    I guess the major technology change required is perhaps not so much in the appliances – which probably mostly already sport an embedded processor – but an electricity meter that logs precisely when each unit of energy is purchased to validate that consumption is occurring at the correct time.

    If any readers on this site with business experience are feeling enterprising and thinking of setting up a venture to implement this, please do let me know…

  2. Zero running cost homes will have fridges with extra computer controlled coils cooled by ground water or wind and heated by sunlight, super insulated cavities, separate freezer areas and also use solid state cooling ‘transistors’ and solar cell electricity – all, currently used technologies, but never thought practical enough to combine until the energy/resource crunch came upon us. Water is best distilled by solar means (computer controlled of course) and stored in a cool spot under ground!
    One day as I relax in my well designed, environmntally friendly zero running cost eco-home, I will think back on this article, and wonder how this idiot is surviving the worst depression in history in his McMansion, complete with a water filter attached to his beer cooler, that re-orders new filters at will, by computer of course, and pray he does not come hunting for food with his SUV and shot gun in my neiborhood!

  3. People have been talking about this for 20+ years. There’s a now very ugly “house of the future” in Florida near Disney that discussed this back in the 80s.

  4. I am happy about this function as well, but the potential for abuse is understated here. I have Lexmark Multi-function Printer, Scanner, Fax, etc for my home office. The printer dialog tells me that my ink cartridge needs replacement. However, 50 sheets of printing ladder there is no decline of print quality. So another view is the company is going to get me to buy more toner, filters, etc than I normal would and shift my consumption patterns.

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