This is What Energy-Efficient, Smart Homes of the Future Look Like | Alliance to Save Energy
09/13/19 : Todd Rath

This is What Energy-Efficient, Smart Homes of the Future Look Like

By Todd Rath, Marketing Services Director, Alabama Power

[Editor’s note: We asked the 2019 Star of Systems Efficiency, Alabama Power, to explain how they developed Smart Neighborhood and how it works. Here’s their story.]

Imagine a home that “wakes up” in the morning with a simple voice command.

A buzz of activity begins: The kitchen lights turn on and, more important, the coffee starts brewing; you receive the weather forecast and traffic report for your commute; at just the right time, the garage door opens. 

After you arrive at work, you check from your smartphone to see if you remembered to lock the door. When the school bus brings the kids home, you can see them and remotely unlock the door. Meanwhile, the temperature inside is adjusted according to your preset preferences.  

Homes like this exist right now in a quiet community about 15 miles outside the Magic City, Birmingham, Alabama. What’s more, these homes produce data to point the way to an even more energy-efficient and connected future that will help match new products and services to the evolving ways that people use energy.

The setting is Alabama Power’s Smart Neighborhood™, where cutting-edge technologies and an R&D mindset help us learn more about how customers use these systems so we can make solid, data-based decisions to find better ways to serve our customers in a fast-changing world.

With Smart Neighborhood, we and our project partners − Signature Homes, the research team at Southern Company, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Electric Power Research Institute, and our technology vendors Carrier, Vivint, and Rheem – are seeking to understand how to make the best use of advances in technology to meet customers’ needs in the years ahead.

This is an opportunity to jump ahead 15 to 20 years to see how homes will become more efficient.   

A Future-Focused Community 

Smart Neighborhood integrates high-performance homes, energy-efficient systems and appliances, connected devices, and a microgrid on a community-wide scale for the first time in the Southeast.

The future-focused, energy-efficient community has 62 homes that are rated 35 percent more efficient than standard Alabama homes being built today.

While there are projects elsewhere that have energy-efficient homes or renewable energy assets or smart technology and home automation pilots, Smart Neighborhood is the first with all these components incorporated into one.

Smart Neighborhood lets us model how much energy high-performance homes will use and provides opportunities to enhance grid resiliency through distributed generation and assess how smart technology gives homeowners more control over their living space.

Already Seeing Progress

The neighborhood was completed in the summer of 2018. As all the residents have moved in, we’ve found that some homes function more efficiently than anticipated.

The microgrid began providing energy to the neighborhood and electric grid in January 2018, ahead of the first residents moving in. Made up of solar panels, battery storage, and a backup natural gas generator, it is the first in the region to support a residential community.

Microgrid assets were sized to power the neighborhood on the hottest and coldest days of the year. In moderate weather, the battery system can power the neighborhood for six to eight hours.

In addition, the water heater and HVAC systems can interact with the grid to manage and shift energy consumption, while maintaining customer comfort, through thermal-energy storage.

Our researchers have already tested several use-cases for the microgrid, including islanding and resynchronization, black start, unintentional islanding, fault stability and ride-through, economic dispatch, and PV smoothing.

We’ve also been able to use early research findings to develop a Smart Neighborhood Builder Program. There are three additional neighborhoods underway in our state, so more customers will be able to enjoy the comfort and convenience of a Smart Neighborhood home.

Teamwork Essential

The project’s success required great coordination among all the partners. Just as important was the teamwork internally.

The project team for Smart Neighborhood included almost every department within Alabama Power, and the collaboration is what really made it happen. Employees were called on to focus on Smart Neighborhood in addition to their regular day-to-day responsibilities. Every core team member brought their knowledge, relationships and resources to the table.

It has been an impressive demonstration of the bandwidth of utilities and how they can provide innovative solutions. It gives us more reason to be excited about the future.

Alabama Power will be presented the 2019 Star of Systems Efficiency Award at the Evening with the Stars of Energy Efficiency Awards Gala on September 19.