Home Area Network Control Issues Surface

By Published On: October 19, 2012

California utilities have not yet enabled their “smart” meters to talk with home area network systems. The technology is supposed to enable consumers to monitor and manage energy use. That is in spite of an open network, with common architecture that’s allowed hundreds of pieces of network equipment to be certified by the national ZigBee Alliance. Although it’s off to a slow start, the home area network equipment market is expected to pick up in California. “It’s imminent,” said David Song, Southern California Edison spokesperson. Ultimately, though, he said “it’s up to the customer” as to whether they install an in-home system at their own expense. A basic in-home display may cost about $60. Adding “smart” thermostats and other equipment to control electricity-using devices in the home adds to that cost. While a complete system may cost of hundreds of dollars, the costs are supposed to be offset by energy savings. The network equipment market is projected to reach $4.3 billion in 2016, according to San Diego-based market research firm, ON World. It was worth $1.6 billion in 2011, according to the firm. Edison and other utilities are preparing for their customers to install home area networks as directed by the California Public Utilities Commission earlier this month (see story on page 4). “I, like many electricity customers, am eager to set up my own home area network,” commission president Mike Peevey declared. “With a smart thermostat connected to my wi-fi router, I’ll be able to control the temperature of my house with my smart phone from the office. I will be able to go to my local hardware store to purchase a [network] device and easily connect it to my smart meter. And eventually, I will be able to purchase smart appliances that help me save even more electricity and decrease my utility bill.” The CPUC ordered utilities to begin accepting customer requests to activate the network function of their 10 million smart meters by Jan. 15, 2013. By Feb. 1, 2013, utilities are required to certify at least five commercially-available network devices that can communicate with utility meters and more after that. While Peevey communicates his vision, it may be some time before connecting home area networks becomes common. Investments run about $5 billion since 2006 for installing the meters. The commission authorized the installations on the promise they’d create energy and pocketbook savings for consumers. A number of home network technologies are doing quite well, but they connect to Internet routers in homes or go through cable TV instead of through smart meters, according to Mareca Hatler, ON World research director. California utilities plan to use the ZigBee communications system when they enable smart meter home area network connections, according to utility spokespeople. Despite the CPUC’s order, deploying those products to benefit consumers requires getting past several technical and policy hurdles. Among them are: -The advent of ZigBee 2.0. The protocol could be available next year. It is incompatible with ZigBee 1.0 devices--like the smart meters in place--without some sort of gateway that translates between them. -Additional testing of devices. -The lack of dynamic pricing as a financial incentive. Enabling home area networks to get energy use data from smart meters is only half of the equation, say many involved in the technology. Transitioning to time-variant rates is the other half. “There is consistent evidence that more real-time price signals produce more awareness of the use of energy,” said David Jermain, Southern California Edison electric vehicle operations and home area network development principal manager. He added that it takes awareness before customers act to save energy. Pacific Gas & Electric has optional time-variant rates available to many of its residential customers, notes utility spokesperson Paul Moreno, but the vast majority of them remain on conventional tiered rates. The Legislature in 2009 prohibited regulators from ordering time-variant rates for residential customers through 2012. The law does allow the CPUC to begin such a transition next year. Regulators have opened a proceeding to that end, but still are scoping what questions and issues to address in the proceeding, so no action is imminent. Meanwhile in California, the price of energy for the average resident is the same all the time, whether it’s the middle of the afternoon, with temperatures exceeding 100 during a flex alert, or in the dead of the night.

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