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Large manufacturers have been tinkering with smart appliances — dishwashers, microwaves and other devices embedded with communications technology — for years. During the height of the dot-com bubble, connected appliances saw renewed hype, with announcements like that of Sun Microsystems (s JAVA), whose CEO Scott McNealy paired a tablet PC with a Whirlpool (s WHR) fridge. But with the emergence of the smart grid, Whirlpool, as well as other appliance makers, finally seems to be taking some concrete steps toward commercializing networked appliances. Whirlpool said this morning that it plans to produce 1 million smart clothes dryers by the end of 2011.
Whirlpool has already pledged to be able to connect all of its appliances to the smart grid by 2015, but this latest production pledge suggests the company is seeking to move even more quickly. As the Wall Street Journal points out, 1 million dryers in 2011 will account for a quarter of Whirlpool’s expected production. GE (s GE) plans to soon start selling a smart water heater that can reduce energy consumption by half compared to a traditional heat pump.
Like other smart appliances, Whirlpool’s smart dryers will react to a signal from the utility’s smart grid that will tell it to power down during times of peak energy use (right after work when everyone comes home, for example, or during a mid-summer day when air conditioning is on full blast) in exchange for a lower monthly energy bill. Whirlpool says the savings from the smart dryer (if your utility has variable pricing) would be on the order of $20-$40 per year.
With such modest savings, Whirlpool won’t be able to make those dryers too much more expensive than non-smart dryers if it wants to sell a lot of them. The Wall Street Journal notes that smart appliances “aren’t expected to be priced much higher than regular EnergyStar products.”
A company like Whirlpool is interested in smart appliances for a few reasons. First, any excuse to convince consumers to buy new products in this economy is being embraced by appliance makers. Second, adding digital intelligence and using low-cost chips and cheap wireless or powerline connections won’t be that expensive for appliance makers.
But a bigger draw is that the smart grid is finally getting significant attention and funding from the federal government — and smart appliances will play an important role in that buildout. Whirlpool says that the development of smart grid standards for the pricing signal that utilities will send to smart appliances (see our 5 Next Steps for Smart Grid Standards) is playing a major role in its aggressive commercialization timetable. Expect to see more announcements from big manufacturers that are starting to feel more comfortable with this technology as the standards mature.
At the end of the day, most consumers won’t want to play an active role in managing the energy consumption of their appliances, so machines and software that will do the job for them will be a necessity.