IHDs are Here to Stay

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Consumers are eagerly embracing new energy management technologies.

by Karen Blackmore

With most endeavors, feedback is critical to improving performance, and energy use behavior is no exception. In-home display (IHD) units that show real-time energy usage can be effective in changing consumption behavior, as indicated by studies that reflect conservation results ranging from 4 percent to 15 percent. In-home and in-business display units can help customers conserve energy and better understand their energy usage, and also be a means for a utility to promote energy efficiency and foster positive demand response.

A sample of in-home energy display units. Among vendors currently in the market, some have metering strengths and some have home-automation strengths.
Click here to enlarge image

Feedback makes clear the link between cause and effect of energy usage. Indirect feedback, such as that offered through a bill or a newsletter, can give information that compares what a consumer has used in prior periods to what others are using for a given period, or it can communicate what a utility is hoping customers will do to reduce energy usage. However, direct feedback through the use of in-home displays enables a consumer to find out in real-time or near real-time what he or she is using and how much it is costing. The time between the action (energy usage) and the result (feedback on cost and usage) makes a difference in how quickly consumers can react to and change their energy usage. Utilities can give consumers specific goals the utility wants to achieve, as well as share ideas with consumers on how they may want to set their own personal goals for energy use reduction, which can increase the conservation savings.

What's happening with IHDs?

In-home energy display devices provide real-time feedback to consumers about how they are using energy. This includes information on real-time power use, instantaneous energy cost, and energy consumption and cost over a particular time period.

Although more IHDs communicate in only one direction at this time, new generations of IHDs that offer advanced two-way features are being piloted or are in early commercialization phases. Most of the one-way devices can provide notices of upcoming usage or pricing events such as peak demand periods, while the two-way devices can communicate with metering systems to receive additional information beyond energy usage, such as dynamic pricing signals and notification of demand response events, and send usage data back to the utility using smart meter technology.

In some cases, IHDs can also be a mechanism for controlling smart appliances as part of a home area network (HAN). A few systems that include home automation features offer additional functionality that is outside energy usage and monitoring, such as media entertainment.

IHDs are evolving to provide better information through real-time feedback to utilities. In order to achieve the greatest gains in demand response and load-shedding programs, utilities will greatly benefit from real-time feedback that can tell them which customers are conserving energy and how much is being conserved. Furthermore, the devices are rapidly evolving past a display-only use to a control-and-manage use.

Devices on the market are moving from a utility-centric model—those that help the utility control and achieve better demand response during peak events—to a customer-centric model, allowing customers to respond by setting the level of energy use they are comfortable with. Because IHDs can convey price information, consumers know when to conserve or shift use.

Some of the control systems work with a variety of metering systems and can function independently from the utility. Both wireless and wired communications are used, depending on the device, and they are also being used to support home area networks.

The ZigBee communications protocol is the likely future standard for wireless home area networks in North America; in the last six months, increasing numbers of meter vendors have started alliances or partnerships to include ZigBee-enabled communications within their meters. Wireless protocol is not the only or exclusive option; with systems that get down to an individual appliance or at an outlet plug-level, using the existing electric wires in a home makes more sense, particularly with appliances that are always plugged in. Whatever the choices are, having open standards that are accessible and usable by other product vendors is important to utilities.

What's next?

Energy Insights' research indicates that although the majority of customers are interested in having an energy display device, only a small percentage are interested in accessing that information via the Internet. Easy-to-use display devices with touchscreen technology or a TV screen with a remote control will continue to be more popular, offering greatest ease of use.

Earlier devices that are still available do not have communications capability with the utility, which means the utility cannot provide dynamic pricing signals to the consumer. Some of them need an electrician's support to install because they are attached to the meter or connected to the electrical panel of a home. Whether these simpler devices can continue to compete against the more sophisticated devices remains to be seen, although the lower cost of the simpler devices continues to provide an entry point for consumer adoption.

Adopting IHDs benefits the utility and the consumer—for the utility, by meeting demand response and increasing energy efficiency, for the consumer, by enabling management of energy usage and controlling costs. As home automation continues to gear up and appliances preconfigured with energy-control chips become ubiquitous, the market will undergo more transformation. Already, additional ZigBee standards are being developed and tested, including commercial building automation similar to home automation, and a smart energy standard, applied to distributed energy devices and measuring the carbon footprint of those devices.

Who are the market players?

Utilities have a wide variety of choices to consider for in-home displays, from both technological and customer-usage points of view. The products offered by vendors generally fall into one of three specific segments:

Customer-centric devices that are ZigBee-enabled or systems primarily built for home automation and control. In this group of vendors are Ambient, Control4, KLG Systel and San Vision.

Utility-centric devices that (at this time) are designed to help a utility control load and also give customers options for energy display and control. Examples of vendors offering products within this group are Aclara, Aztech, Cent-a-meter, Comverge, Echelon, Energate, Energy Control Systems, Honeywell, Landis+Gyr, Secure Meters and The Energy Detective (TED).

Devices that are both utility- and customer-centric. Vendors in this sector include BlueLine and Tendril Networks.

Considerations and actions for utilities

There are many reasons utilities would like consumers to use in-home display devices, including:

  • Energy efficiency, based on savings of 4 percent to 15 percent and even more if utilities develop energy efficiency programs for consumers. Consumers have increased interest in managing costs of energy as they rise, and continue to support solutions that help them reduce their carbon footprint.
  • Dynamic pricing and demand response needs, including price notifications for time-of-use events such as critical peak pricing and notification of load shedding needs. These messages can be targeted toward specific groups or individual consumers.
  • Smart metering capabilities to provide accurate data in near real-time. This capability benefits both the utility and the consumer. It gives the utility information about who is participating in reducing energy usage and by how much. It enables consumers to find out what they are using and how they might take steps to reduce usage even more. The increased communications can even provide for thank-you messages for participating during a load-shedding event.

As utilities move forward with energy efficiency, demand response and smart metering plans, there are some actions they should consider:

  • Include in-home and in-business energy management in the corporate energy efficiency strategy. Defining what the utility intends to achieve regarding energy efficiency will be important to corporate objectives.
  • Analyze the options now, whether smart metering is part of the plan or not.
  • Have a communications plan ready for customer service representatives as consumers increase their interest in and questions about in-home displays, especially if the utility is planning to implement some type of IHD program.
  • Build internal buy-in by providing working units for employees to use to increase their understanding of how the units work. As employees try out the devices, track what questions are raised and incorporate answers into the marketing and communications plans.
  • Build external buy-in by demonstrating the displays and their energy-conservation applications to regulators and other stakeholders, particularly the media and the construction industry.

IHDs are here to stay

Regardless of which path a consumer or utility picks regarding IHD usage, IHDs are now a reality, improving at nearly the same rate as other technologies such as cell phones and cameras. More vendors will surely enter the market, but among those currently in the market, some have metering strengths and some have home-automation strengths. Most of the vendors are planning new releases within the next year to upgrade the technology of the IHDs they offer. It's an exciting time in the industry as technology evolves in response to need.


Karen Blackmore is research director at Energy Insights, an IDC company. She provides research-based advisory and consulting services to retail energy executives to maximize the value of their technology investments and drive technology-enabled business innovation. Blackmore has more than 25 years of experience in directing and implementing IT visions and strategies for mid-size to Fortune 500 companies .

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