New Intel Sensor Could Cut Electricity Bill

A new sensor and personal energy management panel made by Intel could help combat global warming by cutting electricity use by one-third.

In an address this week during Intel's Developer Forum in Beijing, China, Justin Rattner, chief technology officer, posed the question: What if we could make energy management personal? Just like computing was taken from the hands of big business and put into the pockets and purses of consumers. After all, computers and information technology (IT) equipment only account for two percent of the world's power consumption.

"If we were to hugely succeed and cut IT power in half, we'd only improve things by one percent," Rattner said. "On the other hand, there are 113 million households that represent 35 percent of total U.S. energy. Now that's a huge number."

Rattner says information can change behavior. He called it the "Wayne Gerdes Effect." Gerdes, considered the father of hypermiling (the art of getting super high gas mileage at rates above 100 miles per gallon) and one of the world's foremost experts in vehicle fuel efficiency said that if every vehicle on the road had an energy management screen, we would immediately save 20 percent of total fuel associated with vehicle operation.

"That literally could bring an end to global warming," Rattner said. He said the same principle can be applied to household energy use.

During its presentation, Intel unveiled a single sensor that plugs into a wall outlet. The sensor is not much bigger than a night light.

Once connected, the sensor will wirelessly connect to all electrical devices in the house and self configure to record the voltages from each source in real time.

During the demonstration, the sensor detected the unique signal from three ordinary appliances: a toaster, a microwave and a refrigerator. The sensor sent the information to a PC, which displayed icons associated with the appliances and their energy consumption.

Intel says its research has revealed that consumers want to know more than how much energy they're using and they want to know what they can do to reduce their energy consumption.

Intel engineer Mary Murphy-Hoye showed a touch screen "energy panel" that resembled Apple's iPad tablet. The device could be used to suggest ways homeowners could further reduce their energy use. For instance, it could display a dynamic clock showing optimal times to run different appliances.

"We're putting together a reference design right now," Murphy-Hoye said. Intel expects to have the sensor and the personal energy management panel available before the end of the year.

Intel estimates the average U.S. household could reduce energy consumption by 15 to 31 percent and save up to $470 per year in electricity costs using its system.

Murphy-Hoye tested a prototype of the system in her own home, and used sensors to track and analyze her family's energy use.

She reported the feedback had immediate effects on her family and led to the discovery of new ways to save energy. The first thing everyone did after seeing the energy graph on the family PC was to turn off the lights, she said.

The system also revealed that the water heater was automatically firing up even when she set the washing machine on cold, in order to heat the water to a less cold temperature before the washer filled. This revelation led Murphy-Hoye to find the "tap water" setting on her water heater, which proved to be more energy efficient.

Murphy-Hoye said her time with the system convinced her that it's important for people to not only understand their energy use, but also make it really simple for them to use that information to change their behavior.

Leslie Meredith
Leslie Meredith is a contributor to Live Science. She has a bachelor's degree from UCLA in psychology and has directed tourism and ski publications for the Salt Lake Visitor & Convention Bureau and managed promotions and events for Sunset Magazine.