We recently took a trip down to Louisville, Kentucky, to visit the operations of GE’s home energy management team and get an update on how things were progressing with the planned rolled out of their Nucleus home energy management system, which they unveiled with much fanfare at CES 2011. Fast forward a year later, and let’s just say things haven’t turned out exactly as they envisioned. Setbacks in the home energy management space, coupled with a slower than hoped for rollout of associated technologies that would make their solution work in more consumer homes, have impacted what those initial plans were.

GE, going into CES 2012 this year, was still hopeful in getting its Nucleus system out into the hands of more consumers as it continues to pilot the technology in various markets. A new smart-grid tied pilot program with their technology was just announced, and the company is continuing to develop energy efficient appliances under the ecomagination brand.

image via GE

GE’s Mike Beyerle, who leads marketing for the home energy management program, spent a lengthy amount of time with us, talking about what GE has learned and what it still hopes to accomplish. Note this interview is edited for brevity and clarity.

EarthTechling: Tell us about the Nucleus system. Our readers are familiar with it a little bit already, but what is Nucleus, and where are you guys at with development right now?

Mike Beyerle: Nucleus is a home energy management system. It’s focused heavily on software, but a lot of focus is on the physical device, which is a small computer with several radios in it, which allows communication to your Wi-Fi system. It’ll also talk to your smart-meter on the outside of the house as well as to your smart products or your smart appliances inside the house. It uses those three radios to carry on those conversations.

It has a great deal of data storage as well as processing power. It’ll hold three years worth of your energy data, or other data as well. We have a full suite of home energy management products which complement it, so I’ve got my Nucleus, which is my brain, I’ve got a thermostat which will control my HVAC system and I’ve got control modules for each of my appliances so all of my appliances can be controlled via the Nucleus as well.

In addition I have things such as 120 volt plugs, which allow me to control other small devices that may not be worth putting a controller onto full time, or I’m less interested in energy usage on. I have in-home displays. There are 240 volt switches for turning off some of your large things such as old-style electric water heaters.

ET: Talk to us a little bit about how the system works in relation to power shifts on the grid.

Beyerle: So in the case of some of our products, for example, what you’ll see is that things like the refrigerator – let’s say it wants to go into defrost and it’s 5 o’clock in the afternoon. It’s the middle of August and everybody everywhere’s got their air conditioning turned on because they just came home from work and they’re all hot and sweaty. You would have a choice – you can either turn on another generator, or you can go to the refrigerator and say “hey, why don’t you wait about two or three hours before you do your defrost, that way I don’t have to turn the generator on.” and ultimately it saves all of us a little bit of money on the system.

When the price goes up, power grid operators send an announcement to everybody and say, “ the price is going up, I’ve got to buy expensive electricity. Would you like to do something, or do you all want me to buy expensive electricity?”

The Nucleus picks up that message, says “ok, the price in now high, what would you like to do?” So, if I go over to my dryer, the message shows up and it says “ Delay EP,” which is delaying for energy pricing.  I can press start on it, but the dryer says “hey that’s great, but because the price of electricity is very high, I’m gonna wait for a little while until the price drops a little bit before I start up.”

That’s great if I’m waiting for a load of towels or something, but it doesn’t always happen that way in my life. Sometimes the price is high, but I still need to be able to get that soccer uniform dry. I forgot to wash the kid’s soccer uniform and he has a game this afternoon. What am I gonna do? Being the consumer, you bought the appliance; you’re in control of it.

ET: So you can do a manual override?

Beyerle: Yes, you can do a manual override. It’s gonna cost me a little bit, I’m at 40 cents a KW hour here versus 10 cents a KW hour. It’ll cost me more money, but you know that when the kids gotta be at soccer, lets get them to soccer.

So you maintain control over all the products. And, really what we’ve got is a suite of products that allow you to do this – the washer and dryer in this case. Refrigerators and dishwashers, all the products were set up that whole way. That’s kind of where we’ve been for the last year-year and a half or so.

image via GE

ET: Speaking of the last year and a half, how is the roll out of this technology going?

Beyerle: What we’re seeing is some of the smart-grid rollouts are happening a little slower than we’d like. Utilities, sometimes people refer to them as working on a glacial pace. I got that. The guys are all studying a little bit more. They wanna make sure they’re making the right investments for the consumers.

So you’ll start seeing that we’ll move beyond the energy realm. We’ll go a little more connected home. Our new water heater has number of functions; it has a number of different modes it can operate in.  I can sit here and change the temperatures on my thermostat remotely. I can do that because of energy, but I can also do that because of convenience. Say I’m headed out of town and didn’t know about it, forgot about it, and I’m sitting on the plane on the tarmac. I don’t really want to leave the house at 65-75 degrees while I’m gone –  I can dial it down to 63 degrees this time of year or something. I can take a look at my water heater in water heater modes and set the temperature lower there.

Once you start talking to these things it really becomes a question of, what all do you want to say? Do I want to talk to my dishwasher about how clean it’s getting my dishes? Do I want to talk to the range about what kind of cycles it’s cooking, or what kind of food it’s cooking?

I think you’re gonna find as we go forward, more and more things have the ability to communicate because it has become inexpensive to do and it’s become so easy for consumers to hook’em all up. I mean, everybody’s got their own Wi-Fi system running in their house, so it’s not that hard.

ET: When GE looks as the home energy management market right now, it’s obviously changed . We’ve seen a lot of players that had early hopes like Google and Microsoft come and go. We’ve got a few nimble start-ups out there that are plying their wares and trying to get on the radars of some of the utilities. Where’s GE at right now?

Beyerle: I think we’re pretty committed to the space. We’re very focused on energy, realizing that’s the biggest thing that consumers have to spend their money on in regards to our appliances year after year. I think you’ll see us staying in this business. We’re investing more and more into these products and starting to extract more and more information. We’ll be pulling the energy usage out of it and providing it to the consumer.

When you talk with consumers, even when you talk with them in the energy space, they’re always worried about money. They’re a little worried about energy but not as much as they worry about money. Convenience is always big, right? So if you can give me some money savings, a little bit of convenience and help save the planet all at the same time, you’ve kinda got a winner of a product. That’s really what I think we’re looking for.

ET: So what’s GE’s strategy right now? Is it to see how things go?

Beyerle: No. We’re continuing to progress. We’re actually trying to take advantage of this little pause here to refine the products and get a little bit more functionality out of the product for consumers.

ET: GE originally had certain target dates for at least some of these products. Are you still on those targets? And if not, what’s the new schedule?

Beyerle: We’ve had products released. I would say that we’ve kind of met our target dates but not as enthusiastically as we would have liked.  You really can’t find the Nucleus yet in retailers mostly. We’ve got it so far in a few small retailers and we’re selling some ourselves.

image via GE

Part of the trick there has been that there hasn’t been a market to move’em into. I don’t have a town with smart meters that have been opened up and enabled. You really can’t buy the Nucleus yet to do something with it. I would say we’re probably six months or so off from where we would’ve liked to have been.

ET: Can you operate the Nucleus system without a smart meter?

Beyerle: Not at this moment but you will be soon. When we took another look at the whole system we stopped and said we need a couple other pieces for people who really want the Nucleus system but who don’t have a smart meter. There’ll be another little piece of hardware which basically is a whole home sensor kind of type device and that will provide information on total consumption if you don’t have a smart meter in place.

ET: And what’s the availability on that going to be?

Beyerle: That will be out in the first quarter of the year.

ET: Do you find that consumers are more empowered when they use a product like this?

Beyerle: Yes. Once you understand how much energy is being consumed by the appliances in your house you will change your habits somewhat. People start to change their behavior based on the information that they see. The education is worth an awful lot.

ET: So it sounds like GE has had a bit of education this year on home energy management, but you are still hopeful that things will continue to move in the right direction?

Beyerle: I firmly believe things will continue to move in the right direction. And yes, we have had a bit of an education. We’ve learned a lot from consumers, we’ve learned a lot from utilities and we’re saying “ok, we need to change a little bit of hat we’re doing to help this market transformation continue.”

ET: What do you think is a single thing that GE can do to help with that market transformation?

Beyerle: I think we’re trying to do a lot of it. We continue to spread the word, which is that this stuff is real. It’s coming along. We’re willing to work with people to make it more solid, make it come along. But I think the biggest thing that anybody can do is continue to carry the flag and carry the message that this stuff is coming and its gonna continue to become more real.

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