Smart electric panel. Courtesy of SPAN.

Energy Management’s New Frontier

June 7, 2024
The IRA is getting lots of attention because homeowners are an important element in decarbonization.

Have you taken advantage of any of the financial and tax benefits offered by the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) or the other government programs yet? I did, and like all government programs, read the fine print. There can be limiting caveats, but it was really worth the effort. The Wolf den had an antique HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning) system that required constant maintenance. The existing system probably could have been kept limping along for a few more years, but with all the stimulus paybacks that wasn’t logical.

It was time to replace that relic in my garage. Once the dust settled I was anxious to see how the new HVAC had affected the monthly energy bills. I’m happy to say they were noticeably lower. The HVAC hasn’t been operating for a full year yet, but it appears that overall the energy costs are down from the previous year by nearly 18%.

That’s a substantial savings and to me that “once-in-a-lifetime” economic inducement was worth it. It's the economic push I needed to upgrade my aging HVAC. Others may decide to add solar panels, or perhaps buy that electric vehicle (EV). For now the HVAC was enough, but it pays to study the offerings.

Old Infrastructure   

The IRA is getting lots of attention because homeowners are an important element in decarbonization. Speeding up the replacement of HVACs, adding solar-plus storage, and switching over to EVs pays big dividends in the climate change battle. There’s a lot of new load in this surge of residential electrification. It’s increasing the connected load, which ups the demand load.

These financial incentives will only exacerbate that. I recently read a study that said home service panels (i.e., circuit breaker panel) may have issues if adding more loads. The study went on to say that in the U.S. about 40% of the homes’ panels are rated about 100 amps. When you consider all of these new incentive additions, there are homeowners who are going to need upgrades to their service panels.

It's a safe bet some of them will also have to get their local utility to upgrade the service connection to their homes. Unfortunately these upgrades can be expensive and are time consuming. Supply chain problems can add weeks and in some cases months to upgrading their electric service. A new EV owner is not going to be a happy with any delay that keeps them from charging their EV at home. 

There are, however, some digital technological applications that address these load issues. They range from smart plugs to smart appliances that are controlled by smartphone apps, but they usually work by turning on/off circuits, which is not good for motor driven appliances.

Smarter Energy Management

That’s why a demonstration project funded by DOE is creating such a stir within the residential customer-base. Last year the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) announced their two year collaboration with SPAN had been successfully completed. The goal of the project was to develop a smart electrical panel-based home energy management system (HEMS). The team reported they had integrated NREL’s “foresee” technology into SPAN’s smart electrical panel. Its field testing was successful, and the technology is ready for market.

This type of enhanced electrical panel has the potential to be a game changer for the homeowner who is adding IRA qualifying devices to their electrical ecosystems. Several manufacturers such as Schneider Electric, Eaton, Koben, and SPAN among others offer these enhanced electrical panels. The features offered vary with manufacturer and models selected. They can operate autonomously or require some interaction with the homeowner. Like all digital technologies the homeowner needs to do their homework.

Without going into too much detail, these digital systems take advantage of digital breakers, sensors, computer-control, and AI integrated sophisticated software. The advanced models can distinguish the homeowner’s devices and utilize their real-time data to track their consumption and forecast energy usage. NREL said these smart HEMS panels “can perform multi-objective optimization-based control of the household loads and behind-the-meter distributed energy resources.”

In other words, that watt-hungry EV charger we started out with can do its work when the home and the distribution grid have lower demand on them. By careful monitoring these autonomous wonders may prevent upgrading the home’s electrical service, which is a win/win for the homeowner and the utility. It’s not a cheap product, but reduced energy consumption has financial considerations, and these HEMS panels also qualify for IRA incentives!

About the Author

Gene Wolf

Gene Wolf has been designing and building substations and other high technology facilities for over 32 years. He received his BSEE from Wichita State University. He received his MSEE from New Mexico State University. He is a registered professional engineer in the states of California and New Mexico. He started his career as a substation engineer for Kansas Gas and Electric, retired as the Principal Engineer of Stations for Public Service Company of New Mexico recently, and founded Lone Wolf Engineering, LLC an engineering consulting company.  

Gene is widely recognized as a technical leader in the electric power industry. Gene is a fellow of the IEEE. He is the former Chairman of the IEEE PES T&D Committee. He has held the position of the Chairman of the HVDC & FACTS Subcommittee and membership in many T&D working groups. Gene is also active in renewable energy. He sponsored the formation of the “Integration of Renewable Energy into the Transmission & Distribution Grids” subcommittee and the “Intelligent Grid Transmission and Distribution” subcommittee within the Transmission and Distribution committee.

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