A Smarter Way to Save Energy

By Bob Emmerson October 21, 2013

Smart energy meters don’t save energy. They simply give the utilities an accurate measurement of the amount consumed. Consumers save energy when they can monitor their consumption, using an in-home display or a smartphone. But there is a smarter way: a way that addresses peak energy usage, which is the critical issue for the utilities.  

Before looking at that smarter way, we should consider a couple of key factors that impact the way that energy saving solutions are deployed in Europe and North America. Governments in the Old World are mandating the use of smart energy meters, but without some kind of display, consumers don’t have a quantifiable way of reducing usage along with the monthly bill. However, in-home displays represented an extra cost that consumers were reluctant to pay, therefore mass adoption would require a subsidy from the utility or the government. So far, that hasn’t happened.

Smart meters are not mandated in most U.S. states. They don’t help in the reduction of power at times when there are unexpected critical peaks, which come during high-usage periods such as hot summer days when demand for electricity is highest, or when there are problems with the grid, resulting in the grid being strained. This is a critical issue for the utilities; the cost of building capacity that would only be required at peak times is way too high. The issue has been partially addressed via improvements to network infrastructures, but consumers need to come on board. What the utilities need is a solution that allows them to reduce the peak consumption by motivating their customers to reduce their usage during those critical times, which may only be a few dozens of hours a year.

Smart plugs

Regular smart plugs connect energy-hungry appliances to the electricity outlet and they are used to switch them on or off at scheduled times, i.e. on in the night when tariffs are low. Plugs that have a Bluetooth interface allow a smartphone app to determine the schedule and measure consumption and send that information to the phone.

Greenlet Technologies, an Israeli company, has developed and is marketing a patented “demand response” solution that is sold to power aggregators (utilities and/or energy service companies). It includes an energy management system for the control center, as well as applications that allow consumers to control and monitor their appliances. Aggregators use the solution to monitor overall power consumption, predict power reduction, reduce power and provide consumers who sign up for an incentive program with a monetary refund.

Greenlet’s smart plugs communicate with the gateway using ZigBee and the gateway communicates with the utility over the Internet.

Incentive programs

The need to address the peak load issue is mission-critical, so the utilities are offering financial incentives, such as 10 percent off the electricity bill if they agree not to use the heavy-duty appliances during those peak demand times. Customers who sign up are sent kits with Greenlet’s smart plugs and a gateway as well as a username and password for their personal Web portal and mobile application. Each Greenlet smart plug serves as an accurate meter-per appliance, controller and protector. In this case, the plugs have embedded communications functionality that can detect if it has been removed from the wall socket. This is needed in order to prevent customers bypassing the agreement.

When these plugs are connected they are automatically registered on the utility’s main servers, which can then begin controlling and monitoring appliances following commands received from the management system and consumer portal.

How the programs work

Greenlet’s energy management software collects power consumption data, predicts future consumption and allows utilities to notify their customers the times when they should stop using their appliances.  Notification is done by email and or text messages. The system does not shut down appliances such as washers and dryers that are in use at those times, but it does block usage. Appliances such as air conditioners and heaters are regulated remotely in a convenient way -- customers can opt out using a switch on the gateway, or through the mobile/Web application. Customers can remove the smart plug and make a direct connection, but as indicated earlier, this will be detected through Greenlet’s technology, which utilizes electrical signatures to detect appliance connectivity. The incentive program does not mandate 100 percent participation in the events, so there will normally be a figure, of say 80 percent, for compliance before any action is taken.

The personal Web portal

Incentive programs offer significant financial savings upfront and they are a great marketing tool but customers can, and most will, employ the Web portal to manage and monitor their connected loads 24/7. In this way they gain awareness of their power consumption habits, and benefit from online tips and recommendations that promote additional savings. The appliances can be managed and monitored remotely from a PC, notebook or a smartphone.

The utility’s control center sends information on power reduction events via emails and through the portal, and presents the payback and the savings. In addition, customers get weekly emails with information about each appliance as well as specific actions that will help them reduce their consumption and bill for these particular appliances. The actions proposed are based on the knowledge that is harvested at the control center.


Utilities aim to reduce the peak consumption and increase customer engagement; customers look for overall energy and financial savings. Greenlet’s solution helps them do both.  The do-it-yourself installation process is painless. Alternative solutions require professional installation of power meters and controllers at each home. The company is getting significant traction, both in the U.S. and the U.K. For example, projects with CUB organization in Chicago, Ill., Dominion Power in Va. and the project that will start soon with Western Power Distribution and Energy Saving Trust.

Edited by Rachel Ramsey

TMC European Editor

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