ORLANDO, Fla.—NRECA is partnering with East River Electric Power Cooperative to explore ways to create a “home hub” that would allow the growing number of smart devices in consumers’ houses to “talk” to co-ops to save energy and money.

The hub is the “holy grail” in creating a utility-connected home in which consumer-members voluntarily share control of their smart thermostats and other devices with co-ops to reduce peak energy use, said Brian Sloboda, NRECA’s director of consumer solutions.

Sloboda made the announcement March 12 at a session on “The Utility Connected Home” at NRECA’s Annual Meeting in Orlando, Florida. He was joined by Chris Studer, chief member and public relations officer for East River Electric, which is based in Madison, South Dakota. The co-op and NRECA are also partnering with Dakota State University in Madison, where ideas for the hub will be lab-tested.

A growing number of consumer-members have devices they control with smartphone apps, including thermostats that can be turned up or down remotely and lighting that can be turned on and off without touching a switch.

The problem is that all of these devices, made by different manufacturers, have no way to communicate with each other or with the co-op, Sloboda said. The development of a home hub could change all that, he said.

The hub would give members a dashboard they could use to decide what priority to place on comfort, cost savings and using green energy. Over time, the hub would learn how the home’s residents use energy and adjust accordingly, Sloboda said.

For example, if a member regularly takes showers at 4 p.m., the local co-op would not turn off the water heater during that time, Studer said. Instead, it might save energy by shutting off the lights in an empty room. The technology, of course, depends on a broadband connection, Sloboda noted.

“Really what I want to underscore is how amazingly cool this project is,” Sloboda said, emphasizing that the idea came from East River Electric, which asked NRECA to join the project.

The project will begin in about a month and consist of three phases, which will each take about a year, Studer said. The first phase will be exploratory—basically figuring out how all the smart apps can talk to the hub and how co-ops can connect in a way that emphasizes cybersecurity.

The second phase would be product development, with tests conducted at Dakota State University’s labs. The third phase would be field-testing the hub in a limited number of members’ homes. The system could be tweaked based on consumer feedback and ultimately commercialized into a product that any co-op could use, Studer said.

“Really, the potential is limitless,” Sloboda said.

As part of the TechAdvantage Expo at the annual meeting, NRECA set up a utility-connected home—a mock house with a front door, living room and kitchen that featured wireless doorbell cameras, keyless door locks, security sensors on the windows, a thermostat controlled by a smartphone app and other smart gadgets.

“This is the wave of the future,” said Robert Travis, a member of the board of trustees for CKenergy Electric Cooperative in Binger, Oklahoma, as he explored the exhibit. “It saves money by doing things like turning off lights that you might normally leave on.”

Susan Rossbach, a civil engineer and founder of the tech startup Brains4Drones in Plano, Texas, said she just installed two keyless locks on her front door and embraces smart home technology, which she hopes will just keep getting better and more precise.

“Most people would expect to get back the money they spent on something like a $200 smart thermostat—or double it—in energy savings,” she said.

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