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Energy suppliers are connected to their customers in a way few other businesses can match. Yet hardly any take advantage of the possibilities offered by mobility and the interconnected nature of smartphones. But the balance of power is changing.

Is your washing machine trying to tell you something? It soon could be. The idea of home automation, which stretches back more than a century, has long struggled for ways to exercise effective control. For utilities, the prospect of home automation is both appealing and daunting – it represents a more intimate relationship with customers, but also gives customers more control over their choice of supply.

Despite their reservations, utilities may not have a choice but to adapt. Smartphones are turning home automation into a reality, offering the ability to monitor and manage just about any device at a distance – in theory at least.

"As far as technology’s unfulfilled promises go, in the past home automation has seemed about as likely as flying cars", says Erik Brenneis, head of global Machine-to-Machine (M2M) at Vodafone. "Although our personal routines may appear predictable, there’s enough variability to make intelligent automation insanely difficult. It requires devices and networks that just haven’t existed until now."

The past two years have seen increasing consumer interest in home automation – “domotics” as it’s sometimes called – largely driven by the uptake of smartphones. There are now dozens of smartphone apps that promise control of home automation systems. These allow users to control everything from lighting and heating to home entertainment, cameras and security systems.

Brenneis says: "New app technology is enabling the use of smartphones to control any home appliances through either Wi-Fi or a cellular network at any time anywhere. You can monitor lighting, adjust temperatures and even tighten security with only a few clicks on your mobile.

Just how much of this falls into the category of geeky gadgetry is a matter for debate. Operating today’s “dumb” devices by remote control, from table lamps to tumble dryers, depends on the installation of a home automation network. Smartphones are seldom capable of talking directly to appliances, because most domestic devices are not capable of listening – yet.

Energy control

Despite these limitations, utilities – including gas and electricity suppliers – are watching developments with interest. The ability to remotely monitor and control appliances could become critical, for example, with the widespread use of electric vehicles: if drivers all plug in at once, the lights will go out. Decisions about when vehicles are recharged could lie with energy utilities rather than customers.

Changes of this sort alter the balance of power between consumers and the utilities, with the potential to reshape the competitive arena. This is still some way off. But emerging smartphone apps hint at how things could shape up.

UK-based PassivSystems is one of a new breed of businesses that is redefining the way domestic energy is managed.

Its home energy management system provides users with control of heating and hot water consumption, with technology that “learns” about individual consumption patterns. An iPhone app, launched in August, allows users to manage household energy – gas and, soon, electricity – wherever they are.

"People are increasingly aware of the need to manage their energy more efficiently," says Colin Calder, CEO of PassivSystems. "But just because people have information about their energy consumption does not mean that they have the time to act on it. The PassivEnergy iPhone app is a real game changer, as it’s effectively a remote control for your house and makes it easy for consumers to control and manage their heating from anywhere.

Placed in this context, home automation starts to look less like gimmickry and a lot more like common sense. And the ability to provide householders with a clear picture of how much energy they can save is significant.

"From any web-connected computer in the world", says Brenneis, "it’s now possible to see current and historical energy consumption information from your house, in real time."

In a recent letter to President Obama, US environmental lobbyists – backed by corporate giants including Intel, Google and Hewlett-Packard and more than 40 other organisations – sought to enlist the help of the administration in cutting emissions by providing households and businesses with information about their energy usage.

Communications technology such as the smartphone is central to this vision – in effect, taking electricity meters out from under the stairs and putting them where they can be seen and understood. This, it is hoped, will “unleash the forces of innovation”, leading to lower energy bills for millions of Americans. Initiatives of this sort underline the need for fundamental change in the way that energy is supplied and consumed. Intelligence is set to play an increasingly important part in that process. In the world that’s emerging, “smart” isn’t merely a desirable consumer add-on; it could be the key to keeping the lights on.

“Smartphones and mobile broadband are empowering modern consumers,” says Brenneis. “Today’s apps are about far more than games; they’re on the way towards revolutionising our daily lives.”

Growing interest in home automation coincides with developments in smart metering and smart grid technology. Italy started deploying smart meters a decade ago and others have followed, including Sweden, Malta and the Netherlands. In the UK every home should have smart metering by 2020.

Crucially, the systems architecture for smart metering in the UK postulates the integration of home automation. That means smartphones could play a big part, providing consumers with a way of monitoring and perhaps controlling energy use.

But progress is slow. This recently prompted Ernst & Young to warn that UK utilities could lose out if they fail to ramp up smart meters, networks and services. Competitors from outside the energy business – including the likes of Google and Tesco – could be poised to step in with add-on services and even direct energy supplies.

Such reluctance to engage with smart IT is not confined to the UK. Adrian Tuck is vice-chairman of the ZigBee Alliance, a group of US firms promoting cost-effective monitoring and control products based on an open global standard. “Energy efficiency at a residential level is going to be a vital component of energy policy,” he says. “We deal with many utilities that are working hard to understand how they can play and benefit in this new world. But we also know energy companies that are in denial that change is ever going to happen – and that is dangerous.”

Smart systems

But some utilities are already investing in smart technology. Electricity and gas utility RWE is one of them. The company has teamed up with Microsoft to produce a home automation system that, it is claimed, can cut energy demand by up to 15 per cent. Smartphones provide a way into the system.

“For example, here in the living room, I have linked my cell phone, the television and the room lights to one another,” explains Claudia Schmies, RWE’s head of product management. “I can use my phone to turn off the TV and the lights, or I can go into the bathroom where I have linked the window sensor and heating with one another. That saves up to 10 or 15 per cent on energy costs.”

Meanwhile, the race towards smartness continues, albeit in several different directions. GE Appliances & Lighting in the US recently piloted “demand response” appliances, including fridges and microwave ovens. These incorporate smart communications that allow consumers to make the most of cheap electricity. And companies such as San Francisco-based Touch Revolution are producing built-in touch-screen interfaces for appliances. These include a control module that incorporates Android, the operating system used to control mobile devices. This opens up the possibility of taking direct control of anything from a boiler to a microwave oven via a smartphone.

What’s clear is that the potential role of smartphones in the energy market is just starting to become clear. The smartphone can already save energy by providing control over existing appliances. So what would happen if it could interact with a smart meter? Or even directly with energy suppliers? This creates the tantalising prospect of touch-screen energy arbitrage for the savvy consumer. Whether that becomes a reality or not is too early to say. In the meantime, the smartphone provides a stepping stone to greater consumer participation in all matters of domestic energy consumption. And that can only be a good thing, concludes ZigBee’s Adrian Tuck.

“If, for example, we can give people a smart application that they can use on their phone, the web or internet-enabled television, allowing them to control their thermostat remotely or change their consumption according to the price of electricity, we will start to see them participate,” he says.

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