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Information is power for cheaper electricity

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March 1, 2010

A mobile phone can be used to display and control the energy consumption of appliances (Im...

A mobile phone can be used to display and control the energy consumption of appliances (Image: Fraunhofer FIT)

Most of the time people don’t really take notice of how much power they’re using because the information isn’t readily available or easy to understand, which is where smart meters come in. They provide users with up-to-date information about how much power is being consumed and how much it is costing, thereby providing the information needed to cut energy usage and save money. Software currently being developed will make smart meters even smarter and help consumers make even bigger savings.

In most places electricity is charged at different rates depending on the time of day – it’s more expensive in peak times when usage is high and charged at a lower rate when usage is low. Such differentiation in prices is likely to expand as the increasing use of alternative energy sources such as solar and wind resources are expected to change the electricity supply matrix in the very near future. Because current battery technology is unable to sufficiently buffer the fluctuations in the energy supply consumers need to be able to consume power as precisely as possible.

To that end Professor Frank Bomarius, deputy director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Experimental Software Engineering IESE in Kaiserslautern, and his team are currently developing software that shadows the electricity meter and that ensures energy consumption is adjusted accordingly.

The system would draw information on the anticipated electricity price trend for the next few minutes or hours from the power company and automatically adapt usage based on the needs and preferences of the consumer.

Instead of just shutting off the air conditioner or washing machine for the interim, should electricity prices go up, the team is developing a more intelligent system that would, for instance, use the refrigerator or freezer to conserve energy.

"If the utility company reports that electricity is getting scarce and will become more expensive in the next two hours, then these appliances can begin to pre-cool their contents right away, so that afterwards, they won't need any power for an extended period of time,” says Bomarius.

The same principle applies correspondingly to water and heating systems. The consumer would enter their preferences onto the system, which is controlled via PC, to set the temperature for cooling and heating, as well as setting the maximum price they are willing to pay per kilowatt hour and setting a limit on maximum consumption. The software uses this input to assess when and which devices in the household are switched on and off.

The computer is directly connected to the household’s electrical appliances through electrical conduits or wirelessly. And in actual use, the intelligent energy management system will run on the same computer that also controls other household functions: lighting and heating; window shades; locking systems; and arranging help for residents at home who require assistance.

The system is slated for real-life testing in a few residences in Kaiserslautern in 2010. Its developers say it is also suited for use in large residential complexes, public buildings or commercial premises. Researchers for the Kaiserslautern project and the local utility company are still negotiating exactly how the system will communicate with the supplier.

"We want to keep the interface within a narrow margin," says Bomarius. "There is no reason why my power supplier should know or influence when I use my heating or cooling, watch television or do the cooking."

Additionally, researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Information Technology FIT in Sankt Augustin have developed a mobile phone application that displays the energy consumption of individual appliances within the home.

"Using his mobile phone as a display and control mechanism, the resident can control the energy consumption of his appliances," says Dr. Markus Eisenhauer, who developed the system. "For instance, he can display consumption per room, turn appliances on or off, or dim the lights."

And that's not all: The mobile phone's camera image can be used as a "magic lens." Just point the camera to a certain appliance, and, as if waving a magic wand, the appliance's exact wattage is displayed in real-time.

Fraunhofer are displaying the new systems at CeBIT 2010, which is running until March 6 in Hannover, Germany.

About the Author
Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag.   All articles by Darren Quick
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