Electric Transformation

As the days grow longer and hotter, Californians will start reaching
for the air conditioner controls, putting a squeeze on the state's
power supply and forcing utilities to pay higher prices for
electricity. On scorching afternoons, high demand can lead to brownouts
and blackouts. But relief is coming in the form of new technology being
developed by a multidisciplinary group of CITRIS-affiliated
researchers. Through a project called Demand-Response Enabling
Technology, this group aims to provide California's 10 million
residential power consumers with the ability to automatically respond
to shortages in the state's electrical supply grid by reducing their
electricity use at such times.

How will it work?
California is making plans to charge more for energy used during peak
hours. Demand-response technology relays this price information to
homes, notifying residents when prices are high so they can reduce
their energy consumption. Utility customers could, for example,
pre-program their thermostat to turn off air conditioning and the hot
water heater when prices peak. They could also check the current
electricity price status via a small display in the laundry room before
starting a load, not unlike someone waiting to make long-distance calls
until Sunday when the rates are lower. The system receives information,
shares it with the other sensors, and communicates it to the user via a
network of small wireless devices that are very easy to install.

is all about spreading the load and flattening the peaks
of energy use,” says mechanical engineering professor
Paul Wright, a principal investigator on the project.

project has brought together a diverse group of CITRIS-affiliated
researchers, each focusing on a specific aspect of the
technology. Professor Jan Rabaey and his group in the Berkeley
Wireless Research Center
are working on the miniscule Pico Radios which will
receive and transmit information between the meter,
the thermostat, and the nodes, while Berkeley computer
science professor David Culler, with the Intel
Research Berkeley laboratory
, is heading up work
on the network that will enable all the parts to talk
to one another. Professor Richard White and students
at the Berkeley
Sensor and Actuator Center
are perfecting the assorted
sensors inside the nodes. And to keep battery consumption
down, Wright and his team are focused on incorporating
“energy scavenging” technology, which converts
things like the wall vibrations which occur when a person
walks from one room to another into electric power to
fuel the nodes.

course all the best technology in the world won’t
change people’s ways if the controls are frustrating
to use, as architecture professor Edward Arens, director
of UC Berkeley's Center
for the Built Environment
and a principal investigator
on the project, points out. Arens and mechanical engineering
professor David Auslander have a team of architects
and engineers designing the system’s intuitive,
self-learning user interface. “We want to keep
it very simple so that people don’t look at it,
become confused, and get turned off. Part of what makes
this a CITRIS project is making sure that society accepts
and actually benefits from these ideas,” says

that modern thermostats are so confusing that close
to 80 percent of their owners override them, Arens says
the interface his group is designing on will be as simple
as a traffic light–a small green light for regular
rates, yellow meaning an increase could be ahead, and
red alert for high prices. A blue light could be added
to indicate when there’s a particularly dire problem,
say a power plant down. With the latter, says Arens,
“people may choose to behave well not on a pricing
basis, but out of a sense of goodwill, which studies
have found to be very effective. A lot of people will
turn things down if they know there’s a societal
problem.” Easy PDA-style controls would enable
energy-conscious Californians to shut things off even
when they’re not at home.

more than two years of collaborative work funded by
the California Energy Commission’s Public Interest
Energy Research program, the system will be put to the
test this summer in three modern California homes as
well as in a built-to-scale model located on campus.
In addition to perfecting the interface and technology,
Wright anticipates that the team will spend the next
couple of years making the technology small and cheap
enough to put into homes throughout the state. Demand-Response
Enabling Technology and California’s dynamic electricity
pricing are expected to become a reality within five

are ahead of the curve when it comes to energy conservation.
These coming changes are a continuation of California’s
cutting-edge energy policies over the past three decades,”
says Arens.


For more information:

Response Enabling Technology Developing Project

Institute for Energy and the Environment

California Energy Commission's Public Interest Energy
Research program

Electric-rate Regulation Peak pricing is critical for
an energy-efficient future
Julie A Fitch (San Francisco Chronicle, March 15, 2005)

On Electric-rate Regulation Mandatory
peak pricing is a misguided fine on energy-conscious
by Steve Colvin (San Francisco Chronicle, March 15,

Off California's Energy Crisis" by David Pescovitz
(Lab Notes, August 2003)