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Can We Achieve a "Smart Home" Future?

The concept of the smart grid continues to mystify both utilities and consumers alike. Is it cost-effective? What is the best method for deployment? Is the public ready for it? Do we actually need it?

J.D. Power and Associates recently released its "2011 Smart Energy Consumer Behavioral Segmentation Study," which analyzes consumer knowledge and behaviors related to energy efficiency and smart grid initiatives. The study breaks down consumers into different segments, ranging from "innovator," customers who will significantly invest out-of-pocket for environmental and financial benefits, to "indifferent," those who are not likely to change their energy habits at all.

The study hopes to give utilities methods for optimizing energy efficiency and consumer habits. "Rather than focusing on how customers perceive smart energy, the key to creating engagement lies in understanding the kinds of behaviors that different types of customers will undertake - behaviors that utilities hope to encourage," said Peter Shaw, senior director of the smart energy practice at J.D. Power and Associates. "This provides an efficient framework for optimizing effective customer education and engagement strategies designed to introduce smart energy behaviors to large, diverse customer populations."

So what methods work for the majority of consumers? We live in a tech-savvy world, where the public eagerly awaits the next iPhone so they can spend their free time on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Can utilities cater to our web-based culture?

To determine the possibilities, test projects are running throughout the U.S., including the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) demonstration project that was funded by the Department of Energy. It is set to reach more than 700,000 consumers across 12 states. The project has many goals, one of which is to reduce costs and increase efficiency where distances between homes are often significant and where utilities are forced to travel great lengths to provide services. It also aims to educate its customers with energy efficiency practices.

The project is set to implement innovative technology strategies including in-home displays, web portals and other advanced infrastructure to improve energy monitoring and efficiency to achieve its goals.

Other big-name companies are gearing up to release "smart home" technology. At the recent 2011 Solar Power International show in Dallas, Texas, Sanyo announced that it is partnering with Brightgrid to unveil a new solar leasing program. With each contract, they will include a free 3D television. What does this have to do with a smart home? Sanyo revealed that its ultimate goal is to release a home energy management system to be displayed on the televisions it gives away.

Customers will be able to view their energy consumption habits, monitor their renewable system's efficiency, and use social media to share statistics with family, friends and neighbors. "We are trying to make it a community program. People are disconnected today, and we're just trying to reconnect them," said Matt White of Sanyo. Not only will consumers be connected, they will be educated. The system includes games and other features to teach users about energy efficiency. "It's the next step towards a smart home," said White.

SunReports recently entered the social media market with a Facebook application that displays solar panel efficiency. "If you post it on Facebook, you might get your friends asking questions about, 'Oh, I didn't know you had solar. How's that working?' That stimulates the dialogue and raises the awareness of solar for everyone," said Tom Dinkel, CEO of SunReports. The overall goal is to promote the adoption of renewables and energy efficiency.

So with each test project and innovation, utilities take a small step closer to integrating the smart grid in our lives. The question is: Are they on the right track?

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