In an ordinary suburb of Knoxville, tucked away in the rows of houses, there’s a special one that looks completely ordinary on the outside. Inside, it’s radically different.
This home is really a laboratory, chock-full of products and software that could change the way your home uses electricity, and how you interact with everyday appliances. “Some of it is already commercially available, but maybe not used a lot in the marketplace," says Heather Buckberry, a researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. "Some of it is technology that is not quite ready for primetime, maybe prototypes that we’ve tested in the lab, but we want to take it to as real an environment as is possible.” A computer in the house tests open source code called VOLTTRON. It slurps up all kinds of information, like what the weather is like outside, and whether or not homeowners are around. VOLTTRON uses that data to control thermostats and household appliances. “How can we best use satisfy that need, at the thermostat, but simultaneously reduce the energy usage of the house?” Buckberry says. VOLTTRON’s goal, and that of the whole test program, is to squeeze every bit of efficiency possible from homes. In his 2013 State of the Union address, President Obama said he wanted houses to be twice as efficient by the year 2023. Progress toward that goal is already happening. Smart thermostats can tell when you’re not home, switching air conditioning on and off accordingly. Those kinds of devices aren’t in every home, but ORNL researcher Michael Starke says their effects can already be seen. Starke works with the U.S. Department of Energy and power suppliers to make software that can regulate energy use within a household, or even a whole neighborhood. “We can begin shifting the load consumption to reduce the cost of electricity,” he told WUOT's Victor Agreda. Greater efficiency is also something appliance maker Rheem has been working on for years. Executive vice president of operations John Fitzgerald says Rheem and ORNL use data from the Knoxville model home to make heaters, air conditioners and water heaters that can shift their consumption to times when energy use is lower and utility rates are cheaper. “Well, why am I heating the water at one o'clock in the morning?" Fitzgerald says. "And then you start asking other types of questions about...how do you best optimize that water setting?” Rheem and other manufacturers are making products that offer hands-free energy savings. The appliances adapt to the daily ebb and flow of human use and overall electrical demand. If all this sounds a little like Star Trek, you’re not far off the mark. But the ultimate goal is the marriage of high-concept technology with practical pocketbook benefits, more convenience, and less demand on the nation’s fragile power grids. “And we do all that without disrupting the end point," Heather Buckberry says, "Which is: [Does the homeowner] have hot water or not at the moment it’s needed?”