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Leader’s Corner

Smart Homes

Energy and Technology Fuse Together

Many years ago, in the early 1980s, I was a graduate student of electrical engineering at the University of Belgrade. The university had a modest but well-stocked library; there were not many books there, just a small subset of those that were important to have. Finding the literature in English was even harder at the time— and fairly expensive. Research publications were hard to come across and arrived after months of delay due to slow shipping. The new issues of IEEE transactions were hotly contested by all resident researchers at the university. Needless to say, only hard copies of the journals were circulating. Under such circumstances, keeping in touch with our profession and finding information about the most recent published research was not easy. Let us remember that, at that time, most of the world did not have e-mail and the word Internet did not even exist. Then the treasure trove of information was found in books, journals, and through personal encounters and discussions between researchers attending conferences.

I suppose that the situation I’m describing still depicts fairly accurately how some remote places in the IEEE’s ten Regions are receiving information about the news from the rest of the world. That, of course, does not prevent young researchers from being creative in finding the information they need, but it also describes the difficulty faced by many to access such information. This is a recurring theme of conversations that I have when I meet IEEE Power & Energy Society (PES) members during my travels. But this is not the only topic that I wish to address in this column.

In my time, the monthly arrival of the new publications would always bring me back to the library. One of those publications was IEEE Spectrum. It contained a very diverse collection of articles covering many areas of engineering and addressed issues of interest to all electrical engineers. I would often read articles that had little to do with my research but were exciting to read as they tackled state-of-the-art technology in other engineering domains.

The Smart Homes of the 1980s

I still remember one such article that made a lasting impression on me. It may have arrived in one of the issues in 1981 or 1982. The article described a smart home that was built by a married couple who were engineers, people with excellent knowledge of technology who were successful in their business and decided to build their home to showcase some of the latest technologies. I remember some of the details, as the subject was so different and remote from the 1980s urban lifestyles that my generation was experiencing. That smart house was equipped with external and internal video cameras and an automatic locking system with remote control capabilities via telephone lines. There were multiroom audio systems and televisions in the house, as well as advanced heating and cooling equipment with smart-setting capabilities and smart (for the state of technology) appliances.

Around the same time, a visitor from Intel Corporation, who did the presentation at our university, made a bold statement. He claimed that within ten years, every appliance with a price tag exceeding US$1,000 would possess a microprocessor. It sounded preposterous, unlikely, unnecessary, and unimaginable. From the perspective of the time and place we lived in, such advanced technology was almost too much to imagine. Even if one could picture them, the anticipated cost would surely make them impractical.

The Smart Home Today

Fast forward to 2013: the Internet is more than a quarter-century old, and smart homes are everywhere. The technologies mentioned in the previous paragraph are so widespread that many of them can be installed by do-it-yourself-ers. Connectivity is ubiquitous. Easy-to-install and even easier-to-use security systems can be found very inexpensively in neighborhood Home Depot stores. Communications long ago evolved from telephone land lines to mobile and then fused with the Internet to create smartphones, with countless applications that we never knew we would find impossible to live without.

Many electrical appliances are connected to the Internet. Today’s refrigerators can remind their owners about the foods they are missing. Audio gear can adapt itself digitally to compensate for the room acoustics in which it operates and then follow the listener from room to room by detecting his or her presence there. The lights in our homes can be programmed and controlled remotely. Timers that control lighting used to be very complicated to set because switching was mechanical. Today, switching can be triggered by low light, digitally programmed to account for a variety of changes including seasonal arrival of darkness, and has in general become much smarter. In some cases, smartphones and tablets can be used as programming devices. Programmable thermostats have been part of our heating and cooling systems for several decades. Complex patterns of cooling and heating can be relatively easily programmed by nonexpert users. Based on what we read in the media, even smarter thermostats are on the way. Nest is a company founded by Tony Fadell, who worked on the development of the iPod and iPhone while working for Apple. His new product is a smart thermostat, which learns to adaptively adjust settings based on the behavior of the users and by sensing their presence in the rooms. It also allows remote adjustments via smartphones.

According to the Computer Weekly website, the smart home market will increase in the next three years from US$1.2 billion to US$3.6 billion. These radical changes will not be limited to just media and communications but will include other multiple applications. Surveillance cameras will be equipped with night-vision capabilities, already used in some automobiles. Live video feeds from these cameras can be accessed via mobile phones.

Some homeowners may prefer to integrate many applications into a whole home system, which could contain automation security entertainment seamlessly integrated and controlled by a single interface. The cost of such systems may reach several thousand dollars. Even cable companies are joining in, by beginning to offer home security services. They leverage the connectivity afforded to them as cable providers to control a whole slew of motion detectors and other sensors installed in homes, opening an opportunity to be active players in a totally different business from the one that brought them to our homes. The Web site of the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry offers a definition of a modern smart home as being both green and wired. That brings energy into the picture. The Web site features one of Chicago’s greenest homes, equipped with a solar roof and has an ecofriendly interior and many refurbished or reused pieces of furniture like lamps made from reclaimed iron pillars. The home is also equipped with a state-of-the-art energy monitoring system.

In spite of the great strides made in various home technologies, most of our routines and attitudes about energy have remained unchanged over many decades. While we are using many more devices now than we did in the past, concerns about their efficiency and energy in general have never played a major role in public opinion. Part of the problem is that energy was always and still is relatively cheap. The use of geothermal heat pumps, which can cost several thousand dollars, has a payback time of almost 20 years. The widespread use of solar roofs, expected many years ago, is still awaiting the advent of grid parity to become truly embraced by homeowners. Even energy and efficiency improvements, like insulated walls and double pane windows, often remain in the back of the minds of homeowners. The savings from such improvements simply do not make much of a change in the lives of the decision makers.

Many Changes Ahead

In the past several years, we have witnessed changes in the public attitude toward energy and acceptance of some of the concerns that large-scale generation of energy makes in our lives. That is a great start. Much remains to be done. I recently participated in an informal discussion about the future of the socalled smart grids. We have seen the rise of renewable generation that has made wind power the fastest growing generation technology in the United States for over a decade. Solar photovoltaic technology is up and coming. Some countries, like Ireland, Spain, and Denmark are dealing with the practical consequences of the large-scale deployment of renewable generation. Among those parameters are frequency control, unit commitment, system security and reliability, changes in design practices, and planning imposed by the widely distributed generation resources, often installed on the distribution side of the network. All of those factors are making the problem of running the system as securely and reliably as it was done in the past much more complicated.

In addition, we are expecting many other changes that will affect energy supply systems. Electric transportation, both private and public, is gaining ground, especially in large cities. The widely anticipated arrival of plug-in hybrid electric vehicles will transform our homes into both bigger electrical loads (when they charge the vehicles) and sources of storage (when they discharge them). The arrival of the last mile of fiber-optic telecommunications may open our homes even wider to telecommuting by making them capable of real-time teleconferencing with high-definition video and audio links. That may also change patterns of public and private transportation in big cities.

While many of these changes are very exciting, the big picture may be hard to predict. Many new technologies may and will be developed to support the evolving lifestyles of smart users of the smart grid. That may open countless opportunities to a new generation of entrepreneurs and provide additional boost to the consumer economy in the years to come.

What Do You Think?

We are curious and puzzled by the sheer unpredictability and scope of those changes, where energy and modern technologies fuse to create smarter and better homes. I would like to hear from the readers who have similar interests and experiences. Please let us know how you imagine the energy-related aspects of smart homes to evolve.

  • How will new homes be different from the old ones?
  • How will changes be impacted by the patterns of human behavior and economic and environmental incentives and disincentives?
  • How will the utility business be impacted by those changes?
  • How will smart meters be used? Will they save us money or take away the last bits of our privacy?
  • Will so-called smart grids be capable of tackling the challenges brought about by all the changes?

Sir Arthur Charles Clarke, well known for his short stories and novels (2001: A Space Odyssey), was part of the “big three” authors of science fiction, along with Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. Among his famous quotes are: “If we have learned one thing from the history of invention and discovery, it is that, in the long run— and often in the short one—the most daring prophecies seem laughably conservative.” He also said that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

Please share with us your informed vision of that magic (miroslav.begovic@ieee.org, subject line “Energy Magic”).

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