Power to the People

The Future of Home-Based Sustainable Energy
Written by Robert Hoshowsky

With energy prices soaring and carbon taxes being implemented by governments seeking to reduce carbon emissions and our dependence on fossil fuels such as oil and gas, the rise of sustainable houses is inevitable. Many households were initially hesitant to embrace compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) and LED lighting, but as these products have become safer, cheaper and more efficient, they are now commonplace, largely replacing old-fashioned incandescent light bulbs.
While it did not make quite the same splash in the press as other products from Tesla Inc.’s visionary Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk, such as the lithium battery-powered Tesla Roadster, the company’s Powerwall definitely resonated with homeowners weary of soaring energy prices.

The beauty of the Powerwall comes from its relative simplicity. Since we use rechargeable batteries in our electronic devices such as smartphones, laptops, tablets and MP3 players, why not create a similar power pack for houses themselves? Tesla initiated development in 2012, and two models of the rechargeable lithium-ion battery were announced at the end of April in 2015: the commercial PowerPack and the smaller, household-use Powerwall.

The Powerwall is much more than an oversized battery weighing about two hundred pounds. It was designed to charge and store energy at night – when electrical costs are lower – and send that energy back into the household during the day. It is also useful for providing backup power in the event of a blackout. Part of the Powerwall’s appeal is its ability to be integrated with solar panels to provide free green energy.

Once it was revealed that the Powerwall and PowerPack did, in fact, save customers money on electricity, twenty percent or more in most cases, similar products appeared on the market. LG Chem made the RESU battery; German automaker Mercedes unveiled the Vivint, and BMW, Nissan, ElectrIQ and other competitors all developed batteries. Some, such as the home battery from SimpliPhi Power – originally from the LibertyPak Company – predated the Powerwall by a decade but did not have the same marketing power as Tesla.

Products like the Tesla Powerwall, the Sunverge, the Powervault and others provide vastly different capacities – 14 kWh for a single Powerwall unit, 20 kWh for the unit from Mercedes, up to 33 kWh for the BMW system – yet all have one thing in common. They all provide a bold step forward toward the whole-home integration of sustainable energy.

For many homeowners and businesses, electricity costs are a genuine concern, and lithium-ion battery devices serve as a means for them to regain control over their monthly expenses.

The ever-expanding Tesla acquired a company named SolarCity in November of 2016, as part of providing consumers with a broad range of sustainable home energy options.

The SolarCity subsidiary manufactures, markets and installs solar panels for residential and commercial applications across the United States. And, in partnership with Panasonic, it manufactures solar module components at the Tesla Gigafactory 2 in Buffalo, New York.

This acquisition means homeowners can now outfit their roofs with solar panels that do not resemble the typical massive, shiny black panels we are all used to seeing – quite the opposite, in fact. These are both functional and appealing to the eye, complementing the design of any home. Roofs are available in a variety of styles including textured, smooth, Tuscan and slate and are made from durable tempered glass solar tiles in a range of colours.

Tesla claims these solar roofing tiles are three times more durable than standard roofing products and warranties them for the lifetime of a home. Best of all, they integrate seamlessly with Tesla’s Powerwall, allow homeowners to save money on electricity and never lose power whenever there is a blackout.

While ‘off the grid’ solutions have existed for years, many of them – such as gas-powered generators or rechargeable portable battery packs – are largely intended to be temporary solutions.

These might keep power flowing for a few hours or days in the event of a power outage, such as the Northeast Blackout of 2003, which affected much of the province of Ontario and parts of the Northeastern and Midwestern United States. This blackout resulted in a skyrocketing demand for generators, and big box stores like Home Depot sold out.

Standby generators averaging from 8.5 kW to 14 kWh can be permanently installed outside the home and wired directly to the electrical system and connected to the home’s natural or propane gas line. A sensor immediately detects the loss of electrical power and switches to uninterrupted gas until electricity flows again. While highly useful, these systems are geared toward emergency situations, as opposed to sustainable products like the Powerwall.

There is, of course, much more to the concept of energy-sustainable homes than storage batteries and solar panels. To circumvent an energy crisis, organizations like the Energy Systems Integration Facility are actively researching and promoting sustainable energy around the world. The facility is part of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and is working with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). This April saw the publication of a fully-revised IEEE 1547, which is the ‘critical standard for the interconnection of distributed energy resources,’ and serves to make requirements and guidelines uniform, clear, safer and more reliable for renewable and advanced energy technologies and how they are connected to the electric grid.

Some factors still place the Powerwall and similar devices out of the reach of homeowners, namely the price of the unit – about $5,900 for the Powerwall 2.0 alone – supporting hardware and the cost of installation by a professional electrician.

However, sustainable smart homes are here to stay. For those on a budget or reluctant to jump into renewable energy at present, there are plenty of affordable, energy-saving initiative and products on the market.

These include the Nest, a third-generation Energy Star ‘learning thermostat’ that has helped homeowners save an average of ten to fifteen percent on their heating and cooling costs. Similar products, such as the Ecobee 3 smart thermostat, provide energy-consumption data for homeowners in real time. And the latest generation of LED bulbs, like the Hue Smart from Philips, have evolved to the point that they are no longer just bright white, but actually change colour to resemble a beautiful sunrise or sunset.

Just as heating and air conditioning devour energy, so too do regularly used appliances like washing machines, clothes dryers and dishwashers.

To address this issue, Belkin has come up with the WeMo Switch for just $35 U.S. that integrates smart home platforms such as Nest, Amazon’s Alexa and Google Home. Both the WeMo and the WeMo Mini are compact and inconspicuous as they resemble a regular electrical plug. At present, the WeMo is most used for small appliances, such as desk fans, space heaters and lamps, which allows the user to turn them on and off as needed, saving valuable electricity and money.

In recent months, the hot device for the home has undoubtedly been the Amazon Echo which has sold millions. The retro-looking smart speaker with a built-in microphone is now in its second generation.

Amazon’s virtual assistant ‘Alexa’ speaks in a pleasant female voice much like ‘Siri’ on Apple’s iPhones, and homeowners issue simple voice commands to the device.

It is compatible with numerous devices such as garage door openers, door locks, dimmer switches, ceiling fans, stereos, washing machines, lights, devices that track and measure household water consumption, routers, security systems and more. Alexa even works with kitchen robots and devices that determine fuel level and necessary maintenance for cars.

As with the introduction of all technology, prices drop over time and products go through various incarnations as quality and functionality improve. From those seeking to make their house more sustainable, there are many low-to mid-priced devices on the market as we head toward a cleaner, greener future.



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