From: Timothy Gardner, Reuters
Published October 29, 2007 11:06 PM

GE says smart panel to cut power bills

NEW YORK (Reuters) - General Electric Co said it is developing a control panel that should allow homeowners to trim rising utility bills by helping manage power and water consumption.

The "eco-dashboard" will be available in December in new home developments in southern and western U.S. states, areas where power and water supplies are particularly stressed, Juan de Bedout, a renewable energy specialist at GE's global research center in Niskayuna, New York said late last week.

The panel is designed to show ratepayers how much money they would save if, for example, they pre-cooled or pre-heated their homes before electricity prices went up during periods of peak load, typically in the early evening. They also could set the panel to turn up the air conditioning, or run the clothes drier only when the power price gets below a certain level.

"This allows homeowners to make decisions on whether they would like to change their behavior to be more green," said de Bedout. "It gives them a tool set."

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Power utilities must provide real-time information on electricity rates to homes for such smart systems to work, but more are doing so as it becomes more difficult and expensive for them to build new power plants.

Jason Makansi, author of "Lights Out," a book about the poor state of the U.S. power grid, said such "smart" demand controls could cut consumers' power consumption by about 3 percent to 5 percent. In some areas of the country, such savings could obviate the need for utilities to build power plants, which can cost billions of dollars.

Until now, most consumers have been ignorant about how much their power costs on a daily basis, but such real-time information should help them change consumption habits, he said. Once consumers know more about what in their homes is pushing up their power bills, they should change their habits, similar to they way drivers often decide where to fill up their cars by looking at pump prices, he added.

MORE EFFICIENT SOLAR

Once utilities share more real-time pricing information to homeowners, GE also will look to sell the eco-dashboard to existing homes, said de Bedout.

In coming decades, the control systems could even advise homeowners who have invested in solar panels the best time to run their appliances on power collected from the sun. GE says it believes that by 2020 or 2030 solar costs could fall about half from where they are today to reach the same price as power generated by conventional power plants. At that point the alternative energy could experience "unbounded growth," GE's chief engineer Jim Lyons said in London this month, echoing sentiments from other GE officials.

If batteries are developed that could store the power generated from the solar panels, the eco-dashboard could be programmed to discharge the batteries when the price of power from the grid goes up.

GE would not reveal how much the eco-dashboard will cost, but said it would be far cheaper than solar panels, and many other parts of home power systems, and would quickly pay for itself through utility bill savings.

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