Building a Smarter Thermostat

Thermostats are nowhere near as energy efficient as they could be. They could do a lot better, given residential heating and cooling make up roughly half of residential energy consumption according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Maybe Nathan Ota can help. He’s a 28-old recent mechanical engineering PhD student whose research at UC Berkeley was focused on making thermostats smarter: more energy efficient, more interactive with the electric grid and better at making us more comfortable.

Ota’s research helped develop a system connecting wireless sensors to a thermostat monitoring temperature and humidity in individual rooms. The system can control a building’s environment using algorithms designed to maximize both comfort and efficiency. With the aid of a router, it could also one day tap into grid info provided by Cal ISO, a non profit that operates California’s wholesale powergrid, as well as pricing info provided by utilities. This would be useful if utilities begin to sell power at prices based on demand and supply, as opposed to at a flat per kilowatt fee.

Right now most consumers pay a flat fee for energy, but California and other states are looking at ways that consumers will reduce power consumption during peak electricity demand to avoid higher electricity prices.

Say it’s a hot day and the grid is in bad shape because demand for electricity is almost greater than available supply, Ota’s smart thermometer could display energy costs throughout the day, allowing the consumer to balance cost and comfort. Connected systems like these can change the way people consume energy, though they are not yet widely adopted in the residential market.

At the recent clean tech conference GreenVest last month, the Commissioner of the California Energy Commission John Geesman said that smart (connected) meters will be rolled out in residential dwellings over the course of 4 to 5 years, and called smart meters “one of the most technically disruptive elements in the residential sphere.” Smart meters will pave the way for dynamic electricity prices.

The state has also tested smart thermostats through the California Statewide Pricing Pilot –- a large electricity pricing study conducted in Southern California Edison’s service territory during the summer of 2004 and 2005. Consumers in the pilot study did end up reducing their consumption based on price info. Ota wasn’t directly involved with the study, but he tells us that SoCal Edison was on the technical advisory committee for the research team with whom Ota did his PhD research.

Ota’s idea is that since most consumers probably aren’t so keen on micro-managing their energy usage, an intelligent, automated system that balances a consumer’s cost and comfort preferences could prove popular. “Reduce energy consumption without sacrificing comfort,” he explains. His system also is unique in its use of wireless sensors to get you there.

Right now Ota’s system is very much in the prototype stage. But he plans to use the technology to found a company this summer. He also just entered the California Clean Tech Open, a clean-tech business plan competition that offers cash, office space and much needed media and industry attention — “a start up in a box” prize.

The high-profile competition can go a long way to launching a new startup. One of last year’s winners, solar power startup GreenVolts, have now raised funding and signed two deals with utilities.