When it comes to the outlook of smart home energy, the relationship between customers and system is becoming more of a two-way concept, as the customer is no longer just a consumer but is also there to serve the system and help it run smoothly.
Dr Sarah Darby, an associate professor and acting leader of the energy programme at the Environmental Change Institute, Oxford University, emphasises that from a system’s point of view, developing business models for thermal appliances like fridges, freezers, and various heaters, as well as electric vehicles, can considerably benefit both customers and systems.
“The way of looking at smart home energy is [checking] where those sorts of appliances can be put to work and, at the same time, I think that developing demand-side response using those appliances is a big challenge at the moment,” Darby says.
The key components of smart home energy
Smart energy systems are being led by demand, met by supply that may well be increasingly variable as nations become increasingly reliant on renewables. For this reason, a basic device like the smart meter is becoming pivotal to navigate levels of supply and demand and help users to make better-informed decisions about their energy use.
“The smart meter is an important element in that, because it offers communication. At a time when the electricity system is becoming more of a two-way thing, demand has to become more flexible to respond to that. So, the smart meter is an important piece, as an interface between customers and systems,” Darby says.
In addition to smart meters themselves, Pilgrim Beart, CEO and co-founder of IoT service management platform DevicePilot, accentuates the role of embedded intelligence within devices and connected intelligence when it comes to the complete outlook of smart home energy.
“There might be a very specific reason for connecting building intelligence into something. But once it’s there, it’s now a connected device and then it can start to interact with all sorts of other devices,” Beart says.
“My electric car or my smart meter are both connected to the internet for their own individual reasons, but then you can start to do things like charging your car when electricity is cheap. That’s actually relatively trivial to add, just with a little bit of software.
“But to start offering those kinds of services feels like all the heavy lifting has been done. Now we can do lots of joining together and that’s where most of the value will come from.”
With the rollout of home photovoltaics in the last 10 years, Beart says that it feels like EVs are bringing the next big shift: “The thing that’s rapidly taking off now is EV charging, and in terms of power and energy that’s obviously a very massive shift in households that have EVs, which is still a small percentage, but suddenly, it’s changing the way.”
Challenges and solving connectivity
With smart homes consisting of many separate smart devices, they all come with their own little challenges.
But if the smart home is considered to be all of these things working together, then the challenge is to make them work well together, and there are lots of different layers to that problem.
Beart says: “You’ve got the problem of semantics and schemas. If I’ve got a service that wants to use my thermostat, if I have some sort of service that’s going to try to optimise my heating to improve comfort and reduce cost, what sort of parameters does it expect my heating to have?
“Does it expect it to have a thermostat with temperature in degrees centigrade? There’s still a long way to go… If you buy everything from the same manufacturer, then it does work together; we see that with Apple, for example.”
But as it’s not possible for homeowners to buy every appliance in their house from the same big appliance company, the industry has to find a way to use the same technical standards, so that appliances can talk to each other locally, in a tightly integrated system.
However, Beart suggests that would be very hard to do as things keep changing, new devices keep appearing, and, simultaneously, it is difficult to build a standard that can do everything for everyone, forever.
“The good news is we don’t need to do things like that anymore because we have the internet, and the genius of the internet is IP, the Internet Protocol setting. So, on my phone, I’ve got a lot of applications, and I’ve got a lot of ways for the phone to communicate to it, it could use Wi-Fi or it can use cellular.
“If I start up my email app on my phone, it can pick up my email. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s using cellular or Wi-Fi to do that. They’re very different standards from a technical point of view, but my email app doesn’t care, because they’ve been through the narrow waste of IP Internet Protocol and this fundamental thing has made the internet explode.
“It’s this abstraction, which allows all those different layers of functionality to evolve independently, instead of being locked into one big fluid moving standard.”
As this way of using the internet gives us a common way of talking and a common place to connect locally, Beart believes that this is the magic piece that can make the smart home work smoothly.
Demand-side response in systems integrating renewable energy into supplies
The concept of demand-side response has been used for decades at a very high level. Aluminium smelters or big factories, for example, have often had a special deal with the supplier, based on supply levels.
For instance, if supply is really low, companies agree to stop operations for a number of hours per year. However, applying demand response in energy on a smaller scale, where people have to adapt their demand based on the conditions of the network, could prove much harder to adjust.
Darby shares that she is currently working on a project in an Oxford neighborhood, where they are trying to incorporate the use of freezers in supermarkets and also some batteries in people’s homes on the basis of demand-side response.
“To provide a demand-side response is hard to do because to get a market going you need to put a price on it – how much it’s worth to the network. And until you can put a price on it, people may not want to join in. But it’s quite hard to find out how much value there is until you’ve got something going,” she says.
She also shares that it would be more beneficial if network operators are more involved in the processes resulting in the creation of regulations. Currently, there are two publicly acceptable standards being developed at the British Standards Institution, the classification for energy smart appliances and the standard code of practice for demand-side response, with both being in a quite advanced stage.
When it comes to the idea of a strong and successful bond between processes, Darby says: “I can think of three types of communication as being very important in getting connectivity effectively underway. There’s the communication between different pieces of kit. There’s the control element, the interface between humans and technology; so there’s technology and people and having user-friendly appliances, which are easy to control and to understand.
“And then there’s the people-to-people element, which is the customer support element for those occasions when you just need some help.”
With many new developments to ensure the optimal enhancement of smart home energy systems being underway, it is hard not to be hopeful for the near future of the industry.
“There’s work to be done, but I think we are gradually getting there. Demand-side response is gradually percolating downwards, as you might say to the smaller customers, but they will need to have these middle actors who will aggregate the demand and do the trading on their behalf,” Darby concludes.