We asked Phillips to share his insights into the connection between consumer activities and blackouts. He replied to our questions via email.
Q: Power outages in Texas and California concern people all over the country who worry about this happening to their communities. Is there a role for consumers to play in preventing blackouts? What are some simple steps they can take?
A: Much of the solution will be at the system level with measures such as the grid sharing power over larger regions and better weatherization of the components of the grid. All of this will be made easier with increased flexibility around how much power is actually used — to better match supply and demand.
Consumers can have a big impact by shifting their power use away from times when demand is high. Sense conducted a study in California that showed that 55 percent of energy could be shifted away from peak summer hours by consumer actions. Heating and cooling use more than half of a typical home’s energy, so consumers can take steps like weatherizing their home and adjusting the thermostat to use less electricity during peak load times. Other simple steps: Charge your EV and other devices before extreme weather is expected, shut down consumer electronics when not in use and minimize your hot water usage.
Q: How can consumers monitor their energy use on a day-to-day basis?
A: Home energy monitors like Sense allow you to monitor your home’s real-time energy use in a smartphone app. The app can notify users if their bill hits a certain threshold or is trending higher than usual — so consumers can budget before getting their monthly utility bill. The app can also remind consumers when their utility’s time-of-use program enters a higher rate period so they can save money by scheduling their washing machine, dryer or dishwasher when electricity is less expensive. Some utilities have rolled out smart meters that provide detailed information to consumers in smartphone apps, and there is a next wave of smart meters and in-home devices which can provide a real-time view of energy use. We think this real-time visibility is what’s important to make energy use more transparent and actionable for consumers.
Q: What other smart home advances are available now to address climate change?
A: There are several smart home devices that directly impact energy use and can connect to utility programs to save money and help the grid react to extreme weather. Connected thermostats are the most well-known example of this, but we are starting to see similar approaches for other smart home devices like EV chargers, which can minimize carbon impact or charge at lowest cost, and smart water heaters with apps that let you monitor the heater’s status, set schedules, adjust the water temperature and get alerts about leaks.
Q: What do you anticipate will be future changes that can help consumers and utility companies work together to reduce the possibilities for blackouts?
A: While these energy monitors and smart devices are helping consumers today, the core systems of homes need to become much more intelligent and automated over time to balance energy demands. Sometimes you need to use energy right now — turning on lights or watching a movie, for instance.
But sometimes you do not care when energy is used — you only care about the result. For instance, you want your home to feel comfortable while you are there, your water to be hot when you need it, and the EV charged in time for your next drive. The solution is that core systems in your home need to interact with you to figure out how you want things managed, and then should interact with utilities to find the best time to use energy — to save money, to minimize carbon impact and to reduce the chances that the system fails and you lose power entirely. This approach is being tested already by utilities, so consumers can expect to start seeing homes with built-in energy intelligence in the next few years.