Home energy is stuck in the 20th century with innovation urgently needed

By Mike Phillips, Sense

The Biden administration has ambitious goals to address climate change, and so do states like California and New York, that include improvements for residential energy efficiency. But these big plans, with accompanying big budgets, continue to overlook a huge problem: Our approach to heating and cooling homes is stuck in the 20th century. This wastes money and also prevents us from making informed investments to mitigate climate change.

The rolling blackouts in Texas are a case in point, demonstrating the key role of home heating and cooling in the precarious balancing act of operating the grid during extreme weather events driven by climate change. With surging demand and no real-time data about home heating systems or ability to directly influence load, grid operators relied on blackouts that left millions of people without electricity in frigid weather.

Here’s the good news:  There’s a way to make more strategic investments. The combination of AI, data, and consumer facing applications can make ambitious goals for residential energy efficiency and flexibility achievable. It’s not a futuristic idea, because the technology required is already available.

For an example of how data and AI can allow more strategic investments for improving energy efficiency, consider Biden’s proposal to weatherize 2 million homes over four years. Instead of taking a broad-brush approach, we can address residential energy efficiency by targeting the worst-performing homes and updating their heating and cooling systems for the biggest impact on energy and financial savings. This strategic targeting is possible thanks to the data collected from continuous HVAC monitoring.

To understand why detailed monitoring and analysis of heating and cooling matters, it helps to know that HVAC systems remain the single largest energy efficiency target in most homes. Switching to more efficient light bulbs and appliances like refrigerators has been very successful, but there aren’t a lot of remaining savings from these well-known changes.. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, on average, more than half (51% in 2015) of a household’s annual energy consumption comes from heating and air conditioning – and there is still a lot to be done to make sure this energy is being used in smart ways.

This would have a big effect on the environment.  According to a study published this year in the Proceeding of the National Academy of Sciences, based on data from ∼93 million individual homes, roughly 20% of US energy-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions stem from heating, cooling, and powering households.

Currently, we have an incomplete view of what’s happening in our homes.  Smart thermostats provide a step in the right direction – but they stop short of providing all the information we need to fully optimize the heating and cooling of homes. Smart thermostats can do some useful things, like automatically make changes based on weather and adapt to your usage patterns over time, but they don’t know how much energy the HVAC equipment is using or how it is performing.

We need constant communication with intelligent HVAC systems that give us a full picture of the system’s efficiency. The heating and cooling in our homes should have a continuous loop of information sharing. Otherwise we’re left with a puzzle that can never be solved, because half of the pieces are always missing. Is your heating system’s energy consumption normal? Is the system wasting energy and money? Is it time to replace a gas burning furnace with a more efficient heat pump? Without continuous performance monitoring, you won’t know.

This kind of continuous monitoring, and automated techniques for detecting and correcting problems will help us invest strategically to address climate change. How can efficiency data help guide our choices about residential improvements? Here’s an example. When Sense analyzed anonymized HVAC data from almost 15,000 homes we found that the 20% of homes that spend the most energy on cooling are paying almost four times as much as the most efficient similar homes (of similar size, location, and weather). If those inefficient homes were updated so they’d perform like the most efficient ones, we could save 8% of all U.S. residential electricity consumption. That would eliminate 115 billion kWh of electricity usage annually – more than all U.S. solar generation (107 billion kWh) in 2019.

Today the vast majority of residential HVAC systems were designed for the 20th century and need to evolve quickly to meet the challenges posed by climate change. Most HVAC systems today are still controlled manually by the owner interacting with their thermostat. The next level of intelligence is a smart thermostat, like a Nest or Ecobee, that can adjust heating and cooling automatically using sensors in rooms throughout the house. An additional level of control is added by smart grids that allow utilities to influence the timing of heating and cooling to address peak loads.

The next evolution will add continuous monitoring of home HVAC systems to track their performance relative to similar homes, verify that load shifting is happening and its impact, and identify the need for repairs or maintenance. Eventually, it will be possible to model the energy efficiency of the entire building along with the heating and cooling equipment to verify efficiency on an ongoing basis.

Adapting homes to climate change is not just about how much energy you use, but when you use it. As utilities deploy the next generation of meters with the ability to run consumer facing applications and interact with smart devices in the home (Landis+Gyr’s Revelo is an example), with consumer permission, HVAC systems will be able to automatically respond to signals from the grid to shift energy load –  keeping homes comfortable while making responsible, flexible choices about when energy gets used and reducing energy costs.

Utilities, policymakers and builders have critical roles to play in paving the way for home intelligence and automation. Just as stricter emission standards prompted the auto industry to innovate and build more intelligence into cars, it’s time to  bring home heating and cooling into the 21st century, with technology that allows for continuous monitoring that provides a higher level of intelligence about the home.

About the Author

Mike Phillips is the CEO and co-founder of Sense, a leader in home energy management for consumers. A pioneer in the field of machine learning, Mike began his career in speech recognition. He worked as a researcher at MIT before co-founding two speech recognition companies (SpeechWorks and Vlingo) which brought groundbreaking speech recognition capabilities to call centers and to mobile phones, including the technology that powered virtual assistants across hundreds of millions of phones. Mike’s passion for machine learning led him to found Sense in 2013, bringing the power of machine learning to home energy. 

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