Energy generation, use, and conservation are at the root of many of the most pressing issues facing society today. Demand continues to rise while the ability to generate and deliver energy is increasing at a much slower rate. So very simply, using less energy in our daily lives would seem fundamental to our continued collective prosperity and quality of life. In this interview with, Dr Henry (Hank) Marcy, vice president of technology for Whirlpool Corporation, a leading manufacturer and marketer of major home appliances, offers his views on the potential for energy saving in the home and how appliances may become smarter.

What is the breakdown of energy use in the home?
This depends on what region of the world you’re talking about. In the U.S. about 21% of the total energy use is residential. If one breaks this down, space heating, ventilation and air conditioning would account for about half, water heating for about 15% and lighting another 15%. Whirlpool Corporations traditional appliances – washing machines, refrigerators, cookers – account for about 17% of the total.

But in Europe, for example, these appliances would account for a larger percentage because there isn’t as much air conditioning.

What is the potential for energy saving with home appliances?
Historically we have focused on the efficiency of individual appliances. Doing this we can potentially save approximately 16% over the energy usage of traditional appliances. In fact, we do this all the time.

But when one begins to connect appliances together, either via data or via thermal connections, the opportunities for savings increase exponentially.

Why is this?
Let’s start by focusing on the data. There are three primary ways that energy saving can be achieved.

First, by making energy usage more visible to the consumer by providing information on how much energy is being used and what changes can be driven by turning items off or on. Smart meters provide some opportunities to do this. At the moment, most consumers get an electricity bill once a month and they might see some variation month to month, but there isn’t a lot of real-time information they can use to modify their behavior.

Second, by shifting demand to different times of day through pricing schemes or consumer education on when it is more efficient to use electricity. In demonstrations we have done, if people are given the opportunity to modify their behavior to increase efficiency – to shift their clothes washing or dish washing to other times of day – they will. There is some benefit to the consumer through lower costs, but the real benefit is more effective resource usage as a whole.

Third, demand response becomes a factor here. The utility has a whole variety of appliances and systems in the home that can be controlled through a signal. To reduce the load, the simplest picture would be to shut the devices off, but that would require consumers to comply. Instead, by working together with the utilities we can create scenarios where, for example, a clothes dryer is running and a signal is received turning the heater off for a few minutes, but the dryer keeps tumbling and eventually the heater comes back on. The consumer wouldn’t know it had occurred, but the load could be reduced by 80% or more. If one can smooth out the peaks or shift them to some degree, then overall energy generation would be more effective. Also, avoiding having to purchase spinning reserves is a big economic driver for utilities.

As an appliance manufacturer, what would you do to contribute to energy savings?
This is the big question – what is the incentive for manufacturers to enable communication among appliances? On an individual basis, data connectivity for appliances doesn’t do a lot for the consumer – if a utility is doing real-time pricing, it might be possible to achieve some savings, or there might be an incentive for participating in an energy management program. But as a manufacturer those benefits go to consumers and there is no economic driver for manufacturers to build connectivity into appliances. We either need to find different economic driver or work with partners, whether utilities, governments or others, to create those economic drivers.

What we have been doing is working with various governments, agencies, national laboratories, and utilities around the world to understand what is possible. But the big benefit for society as a whole is the energy savings that can be achieved when lots of appliances are controlled collectively.

So the big question is how we move on from where we are today – and it’s not a technology question but a business question.

So what is the answer…
I wish I knew! It’s a very complicated space. It’s also one of the reasons why I wanted to speak at the World Meter Design Congress, so we could begin to open up channels of communication with the right players. We have been approached by utilities to do things on a fairly small scale, but we’ve not come together with the right group of people – or at least it doesn’t feel we have – to do something effectively on a large scale.

Do you collaborate with your competitors or do you remain independent?
We have put a lot of effort into this space, and we have worked with some of the industry bodies, such as the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM), to establish communication standards between appliances. But the industry is very competitive and we haven’t really graduated in the way that, say the semiconductor industry has, where they do a lot of pre-competitive work to establish standards and production tools. For us I would say the industry is not quite there yet in terms of joint development. But having said that, we envision connectivity infrastructure and capabilities, whether for a home area network or through a meter or the internet, becoming standard for our industry.

What is the appliance of the future going to look like?
The big reductions in energy use that are really required will necessitate appliances to communicate with each other thermally, for example, sharing water and heat between them. For example, in the kitchen, appliances that generate heat are the refrigerator, oven and cooktop. Knowing that, it is possible for the dishwasher and washer to use waste heat from these appliances. When appliances begin to share, there is an opportunity to create very significant reductions.

With individual appliance improvements as mentioned we can expect energy savings around 16%. When appliances are connected, it provides an additional 24%. And we could go well beyond this with more sophisticated connections, such as thermal connections.

So the appliance of the future will have some sort of communication system and some sort of connection to other appliances and to the home’s water system.

What are the trends in terms of communications?
People buy appliances and expect them to last for 10 years or more, whereas we all know that connectivity technology has undergone significant changes on a much shorter timescale. So the question from the manufacturer’s perspective is which path to choose? What is becoming clear is that there are and will be wireless networks in the home and also some sort of short range network – Bluetooth, ZigBee or something like it – which is something we will end up wanting to provide as part of our product offering.

But we also want to include some way to be flexible on a timescale much shorter than the life of the appliance so the consumer is not stuck with old technology, and we are working to define that architecture. That could be a change-out of the communication element or greater levels of inbuilt interoperability.

What is going to drive the shift to the appliance of the future?
I think the best drivers are going to be pure economic drivers. So it comes back either to utilities getting very serious about real-time pricing in the home and wanting to form partnerships to make that a positive experience for the consumer, or for some other driver for connectivity, such as the government.

This is our conundrum. We have now done enough work collectively as an industry and as a group of industries to establish that there are real benefits to be obtained, but we haven’t taken the next step of understanding the economics to make it happen.

Smart meters are happening largely because of the operational efficiencies that are gained for the utilities. Extending that network into the home and starting to control ventilation, hot water and appliances is the next step, but we don’t yet see the clear economic proposition being put forward.

What sort of timescale might this shift happen on?
The good news is that the technology exists, so we are not waiting for any kind of invention. The work is to find the right incentives and that could happen in fairly short order. What does take time is to build an installed base as one needs an installed base that is large enough to provide some megawatt benefit that is worthwhile to the utility. If we could start today with connection-ready appliances, then over the next three to five years we would have a sizable population that could be controlled to the benefit of the utility. So the timing is an issue as it would involve a fairly significant long-term investment.

Where might the appliance of the future take off?
We see a lot of activity in Europe and in Japan and Korea, and through smart metering initiatives there is growing interest in the United States. So we can’t call a winner yet – there is quite a bit happening, but so far it’s stopping short of networking meter systems within the home.

We are working very hard on thermally connected appliances in the U.S. and Europe, and we have done a similar number of data connectivity demonstrations in these markets. But the data is still very much at the demonstration stage, whereas the thermal connectivity is a very active development effort for us.

The infrastructure in the home has to change and in the U.S. it means working with home builders, whereas in Europe it means working with kitchen manufacturers.

Hank Marcy is the keynote speaker at the forthcoming World Meter Design Congress.