Whirlpool Corporation ‘the world's leading manufacturer and marketer of major home appliances’ has announced plans to manufacture a million smart grid-compatible clothes dryers by the end of 2011. The move is part of the US Department of Energy's (DOE) Smart Grid Investment Grant program.
The idea is that the appliances will be able to react to signals from the smart grid and modify their energy consumption, hence saving power and reducing electricity bills. Whirlpool says the dryers could save a typical consumer $20 to $40 per year where there is time-of-use pricing, i.e. different peak and off-peak charges.
Using smart appliances will also help manage the availability of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power, which are inherently variable due to weather. According to the company, the deployment of one million smart grid-compatible dryers could shift the equivalent energy of 10 coal fired, 500-megawatt power plants.
Whirlpool was apparently the first appliance manufacturer to conduct a smart grid pilot, back in 2006, and holds key patents. The company has made a commitment that by 2015 all of its electronically controlled appliances will be capable of receiving and responding to signals from the smart grid. However, there are understandable caveats to the plan. Firstly, it’s dependent on the development of an open, global standard for transmitting signals to and receiving signals from a home appliance by the end of 2010 (which at the moment seems unlikely). Secondly, appropriate policies that reward consumers, manufacturers and utilities for using and adding these new peak demand reduction capabilities need to be in place.
Whirlpool’s plans give an insight into why smart grids are coming. If we’re increasingly relying on renewable energy with variable delivery, i.e. wind or solar, then it needs to be intelligently managed at the consumer end. The example often quoted is that if the grid is reliant on solar power, we can’t all plug our electric cars in to be recharged when we get home, just as the sun is going down. There needs to be the means to manage energy use and the incentives to change behaviour.
It is also interesting because of the implications of a world where devices have increasing in-built intelligence and communications capability. The ‘Internet of Things’ is a concept that's been around for some time, but smart grids provide a greater incentive to move in that direction. The implications for the ICT industry are huge.