The possibility of a ‘smart’ home

May 19, 2013 04:12 pm | Updated 04:13 pm IST

Vivek Sharma, Regional Vice President, Greater China and South Asia Region - India Operations, Director India Design Centers, STMicroelectronics.jpg

Vivek Sharma, Regional Vice President, Greater China and South Asia Region - India Operations, Director India Design Centers, STMicroelectronics.jpg

Our home is packed with electrical appliances and electronic equipment and all of it does exactly what it is designed to do.

The AC cools the air temperature and lowers the humidity within an area; the washing machine washes our clotheswhen we press the ‘start’ button; the fridge works quietly 24/7 to keep food fresh; the TV entertains us with programming when we turn it on and select a channel; and the smoke detector in a residential building warns us when it detects smoke.

211 GW of electricity

To power all these appliances, India has 211 GW of electricity — the world’s fifth largest producer of power. However, nearly 400 million Indians still lack access to electricity, and even for those who have access, the supply is erratic and of poor quality, especially in rural India. Electricity demand tends to peak during the day and ebb overnight; forcing producers to overbuild generation facilities to meet peak demand, only to have significant capacity sit idle during slower periods.

In October 2012, according to the Ministry of Power, there was a deficit of 9.1 per cent between the demand for power and its supply, an amount corresponding to 7,654 million units.

Further straining the supply-demand gap, Indian consumers, businesses, and industries are seeking even more electricity. Experts predict that by 2035, India’s demand for power will double.

Higher costs

Today, we are paying more for the electricity that we need and, more important, over the long-term we will be using more electricity than the planet can support. Everything must get “smarter”: smarter appliances, smarter homes, smarter cars, and smarter cities. In fact, we need to live in a smarter world where everything is connected via the “Internet of things” and instead of working in isolation, every machine, appliance, home and car should be able to share information with its neighbours, with the infrastructure and with service providers.

By allowing everything to communicate, the smart network will enable electricity suppliers to balance the peaks and valleys of demand, reduce costs, use significantly less energy and use that energy more efficiently.

The washing machine provides a good example.

Today, when we press the ‘start’ button, the machine begins the wash cycle. It doesn’t know what other appliances are running in the home, let alone on the street or in the neighbourhood, but in the near future it may.

In the smart home

In the smart home, the washing machine, the fridge and the AC will communicate with each other as well as with the smart electricity meter, the home gateway and with the electricity supplier and together, with the homeowner’s inputs on priorities, will decide which appliances should run at what time to optimise energy use and reduce peak demands. This will lower costs for the utility and for the consumer.

A typical solution could delay the start of the wash cycle until the AC and the fridge have confirmed their ability to operate without drawing power until the wash completes. In other words, the AC “knows” the humidity and temperature of the room won’t rise significantly and the fridge “knows” the food will remain fresh while the washing machine is running so the three appliances don’t draw power at the same time.

The benefit, for us, the utility and the world, is much closer matching of electricity demand and supply. This is extremely valuable because mains electricity cannot be stored, so it must be generated to support peak demand. In fact, utility companies today supplement their main power stations with smaller ones that operate only when expected demand surges.

In the metro cities of India, AC alone consumes up to 40 per cent of power. At the end of July 2012, the country witnessed its worst-ever power blackout, leaving more than seven States in the dark for 48 hours.

Just the beginning

In India, roughly 27,000 MW of electricity is wasted every day. By ensuring that the washing machine, fridge, and AC synchronise operations to minimise total power consumed, the smarter home will reduce waste. But this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Imagine if our electricity supplier could communicate with every smart home in the community, continuously checking on the temperature setting and synchronising with every AC to retain that homeowner’s preferred temperature. While allowing only half the homes to draw power at any time, peak requirements would drop, costs would fall, bills would shrink and millions of tons of CO2 emissions would be saved.

While this is not science fiction, it is, unfortunately, not yet a commercial reality. We are getting closer, though: all the key technologies, including wireless and power line communications and low-power/low-cost high-performance embedded processors, already exist and now pioneering chip companies are working with other leaders across the smart-home ecosystem to accelerate the evolution of this essential next step to improve the quality of our life and the efficiency of our use of power.

( The author is Regional Vice-President, Greater China and South Asia, India Operations, and Director, India Design Centre, STMicroelectronics. )

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