Here's a curious fact: whenever I write about digital homes in my MSNBC column, I receive more reader e-mail asking about using home automation for energy savings than for convenience or security. Ironically, Americans are famous for paying lip service to energy conservation—SUV sales slumped last year when gas approached $4 a gallon, then bounced back as soon as prices dropped.
However, at a time when citizens hear about energy conservation at the Oscars (of all places), it seems clear that the issue is bound to become a significant selling point in new homes.
But some home automation technology probably increases energy usage. For example, when we design scenes to turn on a half-dozen lights with a single switch, it tends to eliminate case-by-case consideration of just how much light we really need in a given situation. And because it's often beyond the homeowner's ability (or interest) to reprogram lighting scenes, the preset patterns persist. Similarly, systems that automate exterior lighting, whether for security or esthetics, may be set once, then rarely reconsidered.
As with so many other things, pitching technology to address sustainable living isn't a one-size-fits-all proposition. Builders should have a strategy for green building that takes into account not only construction, but also lifestyle.
There are, of course, home automation features, such as zoned heating and cooling systems with programmed setbacks, which clearly contribute to energy savings. Moreover, future automation technology will raise the level of home “smarts” to include a heightened awareness of real-time conditions. The most obvious example, already common in commercial buildings, is the use of occupancy and light sensors to communicate with HVAC and lighting systems.
Smart systems should know how to maintain interim temperatures, then quickly adjust when someone walks into a room. Window coverings should adjust automatically for optimum heating or cooling. And light sources, particularly those with efficient dimming capabilities, should continually change to take advantage of natural illumination.
Ultimately, utility companies will be part of the smart-home equation. We're already seeing hints of smart meters, which provide consumers real-time feedback on their energy consumption. Today, homeowners have little idea how much energy they're using until the bill arrives. Smart meters will provide a constant readout—and not in mysterious kilowatt-hours, but in actual dollars and cents. (This running analysis of energy usage should also be Web-based—integrated into the digital home's Internet control panel.)
Although there are startup costs, smart meters may offer quick results: Tests in Canada showed a 10 percent reduction in energy usage. The next step, then, is for utilities to offer consumers lower rates for off-peak consumption.
This fits into the digital home infrastructure: Everything from HVAC settings to the hours when washers and dryers operate could be optimized to save money. Of course, it will require builders and installers to offer high-tech appliances and other enabling technology (see “Smart Homes, Smarter Appliances,” page 44).
Sure, widespread smart meters may be a few years in the future, but builders should keep energy conservation in mind, especially when it comes to planning and integrating home automation technology. It's hard to imagine a scenario over the next few decades in which energy consumption isn't an issue.
Even if we manage to keep the basic cost of energy production stable, the debate over global warming likely will drive additional costs, such as “carbon taxes,” which will be passed to the consumer. Finally, if the symptoms of global warming worsen, energy conservation will become not just an economic issue, but also a moral one. At that point, buyers will demand that their homes be part of the solution, not of the problem.
Michael Rogers is MSNBC's “Practical Futurist” and “Futurist in Residence” at the New York Times. He is a leading expert on the impact of technology on business and society, as well as a journalist, novelist, and frequent speaker.