My column today was a snapshot of some energy management projects going on in Ontario, a sign that local utilities are getting energized about the possibilities of energy conservation, given the right technologies in the hands of homeowners and businesses.
I mentioned Milton Hydro’s 200-plus household project in Ontario, but I’d like to provide some context because the results only tell half the story. Here’s what I wrote in the column:
The pilot project, conducted between July 2007 and Sept. 2008, was a collaboration between Milton Hydro, Direct Energy and Bell Canada. Households were given the ability to monitor their energy use through the Internet, as well as through BlackBerry-like devices, and to remotely control the lighting and operation of appliances in their homes.
An easy-to-use Web interface, designed by Toronto-based Lixar SRS, gave them a detailed view of how much electricity individual appliances were using at any point in time. The results showed that one in 10 participating households, when handed this control, used 16 per cent less electricity over 12 months and 18 per cent less during peak periods.
I say only half the story because the Milton project was a bit of a mish-mash of different technologies, some of which worked and some that didn’t work so well. The fact that only 10 per cent achieved savings above 15 per cent per cent is a bit misleading because, as I understand it, different homes were tested with different technologies and protocols. The only common thread was the Lixar SRS energy management software, which Direct Energy hailed as the best part of the project. I’d like to emphasize this because Toronto-based Lixar is another Ontario cleantech company making waves beyond provincial borders. “The most impressive was the Lixar interface,” said David Dollihite, vice-president of product development at Direct Energy. “Lixar has got a leading edge customer user interface for the presentment of energy usage information, and the ability to turn that information into something that’s actionable.”
An example? Some participants in the project were given the capability of participating in provincial demand-response programs. During DR periods, participants saw savings of 44 per cent. Pretty damn good. I’ve taken the Lixar software for a spin, and have to say it lives up to expectations and is super user-friendly. Not only can you monitor overall home electricity use, but you can see what individual devices are using, you can look at historical usage trends, and you can control all of this remotely through an Internet connection or a mobile device. As entire neighbourhoods or cities adopt this technology, one could eventually get the ability to compare your usage to your neighbours or your city average, as well as compare your city to other cities.
There still exists, however, some skepticism in the market. A handful of utility executives have downplayed the new high-tech tools that give homeowners more control. All the bells and whistles are overkill, they argue, adding that most people don’t have the time to monitor their energy use or participate in demand-response programs.
Sure, there’s an element of truth there, but only for those stuck in the past. A retiring boomer couple might not be so enthusiastic, but what about the next-generation of homebuyers who grew up text-messaging their friends, frequenting Facebook and Twitter, and doing their banking exclusively online? I would embrace this technology in a flash if it was available.
It wasn’t long ago that some people dismissed the idea of banking online, or failed to see the value of carrying around a BlackBerry device all day. But my children, for example, will grow up managing their household energy just like they manage their finances, sell stuff on Craigslist, and keep track of friends and family on social networking sites. It will become second nature, and the fact that energy prices will be much higher than they are today will be strong enough incentive.
Don’t believe it? Then ask yourself why Internet giant Google announced in February that it was entering the residential energy-management market with prototype software called PowerMeter? The software, which is expected to be distributed for free, offers similar though less detailed feedback on power use that homeowners got from the Milton Hydro trial using Lixar SRS’s technology.
Google, pretty good so far at spotting trends, has also teamed up with General Electric on smart grid development. GE and other appliance manufactures are readying next-generation washing machines, dryers, dishwashers, air conditioners, and other appliances embedded with switches that can be turned on and off remotely.
If Google’s interest in the market isn’t enough, then maybe the involvement of broadband giants like Bell Canada, AT&T, and Comcast will convince you. Several major telecom companies have announced partnerships with utilities and smart-grid providers because they see the trend taking shape, and they know communications infrastructure will play a crucial role.
Clearly, this future is coming and it’s encouraging to see a Toronto-based company being so far ahead in the game. Lixar, a relatively stealthy venture, is being tested by Duke Energy and Progress Energy, has partnered with HD Supply, and is working with Cisco on smart-grid projects. That’s just scratching the surface, sources tell me. More has been developing behind the scenes.