Connecting to the Future With Integrated Technologies

June 20, 2012
The Smart Grid, wireless technology, and renewable energy are beginning to converge, the result of evolving technologies that are connecting these trends in new ways.

No attempts to anticipate future demands on the heating, ventilation, air-conditioning and refrigeration (HVACR) industry can be successful without carefully considering the mega trends currently facing our industry. Once viewed separately, energy efficiency, the Smart Grid, wireless technology and renewable energy are beginning to converge, the result of evolving technologies that are connecting these trends in new ways and offering those who follow them a glimpse over the horizon to see how the future will unfold. New frontiers are coming into focus and changing our industry, with the potential to improve the way equipment and systems are designed, integrated and controlled.

Few would argue that energy efficiency hasn’t long been the driving force behind many of these changes, thanks to a variety of factors. Energy costs are on the rise. Fossil fuel sources are limited. We are concerned about our dependence on unstable foreign energy sources as well as the costs and related environmental issues associated with siting new power plants and transmission lines. Finally, a growing concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide is contributing to climate change. As a result, the market and regulators are demanding increased energy efficiency, encouraging manufacturers to develop smarter energy-saving and demand-reducing technologies that can respond to current conditions and improve operating efficiencies.

Smart Grid is Getting Smarter
Meanwhile, the Smart Grid is getting smarter. The 50 million smart meters being installed across the United States are providing a two-way flow of information that creates opportunities for better pricing mechanisms, reduced peak loads, adaptations to transient conditions in the utility system, fault detection, the integration of dispersed renewable energy sources and emergency responses. As utilities collect and analyze the data smart meters make available to them, they learn to manage their loads more intelligently and price electricity based on loads rather than a fixed time of day. Consumers, in turn, benefit, armed with the ability to adjust their energy use based on this new pricing structure. The Smart Grid is providing everyone with improved visibility into how and when they use energy and making all of us smarter energy consumers in the process.

A third trend – renewable energy – is driven by many of the same factors behind the trend toward improved energy efficiency: increasing energy costs, limited fuel sources, the instability of foreign energy sources, etc. In addition, new regulations are requiring utilities to source a greater share of their generation from renewable sources such as wind and solar, even as the cost of the associated technologies are decreasing. However, renewable energy is often intermittent, subject to time of day, wind patterns and cloud cover, and requires utilities to operate backup sources, including spinning reserves or other countermeasures, that are often costly, both in terms of capital and energy use. Fortunately, new technologies with demand response capability offer a less costly solution, including equipment on the load side able to communicate instantly and adapt the load to meet supply. For example, the potential exists for utilities to signal appliances, even air conditioners, to turn off for several minutes while new power plants start up. And that’s because technology, as well as the Smart Grid, is getting smarter, even as it relates to renewables.

Wireless communications enables technology convergence Much of this new intelligence can be traced to advances in digital wireless communications that enable devices to communicate at high speed with one another, within a single structure or across the power grid, and in the process, increase the control building owners as well as consumers exercise over their equipment and ultimately, their energy use. And this is where we see the convergence of energy efficiency, Smart Grid, renewable energy and wireless communications trends.

Already the market offers smart connected appliances capable of providing an anticipated service, but using new technology to do so more efficiently than appliances in the past. New refrigerators, for example, use 60% less energy than those sold 20 years ago, even though their capacities have increased by more than 30%. Additionally, smart refrigerators currently under development will be able to shift high energy-consuming defrost cycles off peak, with no loss of convenience to the consumer. These models might also shift ice production off peak, if the utility provides an incentive to the consumer.

Similarly, dishwashers under development, will, by default, delay the run cycle until after utility peak hours. Although consumers will have an override option, they might also receive an incentive from the utility to facilitate the delay feature. Smart appliances like these offer a number of benefits beyond the desired service they provide, including the ability to shift their energy consumption off peak while providing consumers with superior control over appliance operation and energy consumption, so consumers are able to make smarter choices.

HVAC Industry Supports Emerging Technologies
Air-conditioning and heat pump manufacturers are developing technologies that will bring dramatic changes to our industry as well. Variable-speed HVAC systems, for example, more closely match load requirements, cycling on and off less frequently and significantly increasing system efficiencies, often between 4 and 6 SEER points greater for systems with the same size heat exchangers. In addition, the speed of these units can be temporarily slowed, increasing energy efficiency without significantly impacting comfort and enabling utilities to better match load to supply or account for variations in solar and wind generation.

Heat pump performance can also be enhanced by over-speeding the compressor in the heating mode. This application of new technology provides increased comfort, even in colder northern climates, while avoiding expensive resistance heat on the coldest days.

Industry initiatives are underway to support the development and deployment of these emerging technologies, supported by the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers and the Air-Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute. The Electric Power Research Institute is also at the forefront of these developments. In the meantime, early adopters are already purchasing products that incorporate these technologies, enticed by promises of lower energy costs and increased comfort. And as utility incentives and financing mechanisms become more readily available, the demand for smart appliances and equipment will increase.

As a result, contractors will see new products coming into the market that are part of a smarter chain of solutions designed to help bring down energy costs. Equipment integration will be a natural progression. One need only think about smart phones that integrate the web, GPS and cameras to see that progression in action.

It’s clear that the industry is evolving, driven by new connections between energy efficiency, the Smart Grid, renewables and wireless communications. It’s equally clear that HVACR engineers and contractors are part of the evolution, no longer just responsible for providing heating and cooling, but tasked with providing heating and cooling more efficiently than ever before, without sacrificing comfort, convenience or the environment. A key to their success lies in their ability to see and help make the connections between equipment, systems and the grid by first understanding the technology that will make these connections possible, and then applying that technology in new, smart ways that enable appliances and equipment to respond to real-time conditions efficiently and effectively.

Robert Wilkins is vice president, public affairs, Danfoss.