When and How You Use Energy Might Change: Here’s Why – CNET

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It’s 6 p.m. on a sweltering summer day. You get a notification from your utility asking you to raise your thermostat a few degrees. Everyone is running their air conditioners at once and allowing your home to get a bit warmer will use less energy and keep the grid from being overwhelmed. That may even help avoid a blackout. Do you do it?

You make decisions about how you use energy all the time. From small ones, like bumping up the heat a few degrees on a cold morning, to bigger ones like opting into a time-of-use utility plan or installing solar panels.

Avoiding the worst effects of climate change requires us to shift rapidly away from burning fossil fuels for electricity. As we move from big, centralized fossil fuel-burning plants to more distributed, intermittent renewable sources like solar, more decisions about how and when you use energy at home might become part of everyday life. In the next few years, greater insight into your energy use and the opportunity to make more decisions about it will be just one way in which the energy transition reaches into your home.

If having to make a few more decisions about how you manage your home sounds like the last thing you need, there’s a solution for that.

Automating home energy use and benefiting the grid

As more technology aimed at managing energy finds a place in more homes, automating small changes and syncing them with changes in other homes can be a vital service to the grid.

The people who own these devices — water heaters, smart thermostats, smart plugs, home batteries and more — can give companies known as aggregators permission to turn off or adjust these devices. 

“We pay people to reduce their electricity,” said Matt Duesterberg, cofounder and president of OhmConnect, which sells the demand reduction to the grid. Duesterberg said customers get about $30 to $50 a year to allow the company to adjust their energy use 30 to 50 times annually.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission allows those who buy energy for the grid to buy megawatts of new energy and “negawatts” of avoided energy use for the same price.

In a typical case, an individual customer might reduce their energy demand by about 1 kilowatt, or half the electricity an air conditioner uses, Duesterberg said, but collectively, OhmConnect controls about 350 megawatts. Small, simultaneous adjustments across hundreds of thousands devices can deliver a reliable reduction in demand at a level meaningful to the grid.

These collections of smart devices, often called virtual power plants, can also increase the supply of electricity on the grid when they’re made up of batteries. A virtual power plant operated by OhmConnect and SunPower sent a total of 1.2 megawatt-hours of energy from home batteries to the grid between August and December, the companies recently announced. Tesla runs virtual power plants made up of privately owned Powerwall batteries in PG&E’s service area in California and in Texas.

Batteries are also getting better at being flexible with software that balances sending energy to the grid, maintaining a useful charge and reducing your electric bill.

Smart panels, an upgrade to your old breaker box, can let you manage your entire home’s electricity use from afar and put it on a schedule. 

A July 2023 International Energy Agency analysis found that to reach net zero by 2050, the world needed 500 gigawatts of demand response by 2030 and that the pace of adoption needed to increase by a factor of 10. Assuming at least part of that acceleration occurs, opportunities to flexibly manage when and how you use energy will increasingly be part of life at home.

Choosing clean energy at home

Last year, Apple debuted a new feature in its smart home system called Grid Forecast. (It’s inside the Home app.) Like a weather forecast, it takes information about your local grid — the series of power plants, transmission lines and other energy infrastructure that powers an area — and predicts when the electricity delivered to your home will be cleaner or dirtier.

Grid Forecast “helps inform users when their power grid has cleaner energy available, so they can decide when to use electricity,” Apple’s press release said.

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Grid Forecast is like a weather forecast, but for the carbon intensity of the energy coming to your home.

Screenshot/Jon Reed

Apple isn’t alone. Samsung pushes that information to people who use its SmartThings platform. Samsung’s press release said it will help people “make more informed decisions about their energy usage and reduce their carbon footprint.” 

That some renewable energy sources don’t always producesolar when the sun sets, for example — adds a new wrinkle to the question of balancing supply and demand. 

“Those are not resources that we can control and just say, ‘Oh no, I would like to get my solar a little bit later in the day.’ You get it now or you leave it,” said Line Roald, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at University of Wisconsin.

That means the electricity flowing to your house might come from cleaner or dirtier sources depending on the time of day. Shifting your energy use to when cleaner energy is available can reduce your demand on dirtier sources of electricity like coal and natural gas.

In places with lots of renewable energy, wind or solar might be taken offline if their production exceeds demand, wasting clean, cheap electricity. Using that electricity instead of dirtier sources is a clear environmental benefit. Reducing your individual carbon footprint can be valuable, but addressing climate change will require a society-wide shift away from sources of greenhouse gas emitting activities. 

Making load shifting work

If you have a smartphone, you’ve felt information overload. Do we need to process one more bit of information or make one more decision?

“There are many behavioral interventions that kind of ask for this consistent small behavior change to just happen forever. And that’s exhausting,” said Jordana Composto, a doctoral candidate in psychology and social policy at Princeton University. 

Technology that asks users to repeatedly choose clean energy runs the risk of causing decision fatigue. Among other reasons, the risk of decision fatigue is why merely providing information is seldom successful at changing people’s behavior on a large scale, Composto said.

That doesn’t mean that information is useless. It can be used in other interventions, too.

“To the extent that it can inform any automated programming that’s happening in the house, that could be useful,” Composto said.

If you learn that your electricity is consistently cleaner in the middle of the day, you might schedule your dishwasher to run when you’re at work instead of right after dinner. You might schedule your electric vehicle to charge at specific times of day.

Providing people with more information and the chance to take action can be empowering, Roald said. 

In many cases, automation is already built in. Smart thermostats let you set a heating and cooling schedule and forget about it. Most electric vehicles will let you automate their charging schedule. Smart plugs can let you set schedules for almost any device. 

For many devices that can’t be automated, it might only be a matter of time.

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