Are We Overhyping Smart Energy – Again?

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Smart House photo 2Sometimes we’re spot-on when we predict the future. Other times we blow it horribly.

Take smart homes, the forerunner of today’s smart grid. Back in the 1980s, prognosticators thought we’d have millions of smart homes by now and that they would achieve remarkable feats. For example, a United Press International article from 1986 said that a child would be able to stick a finger in an outlet and not get electrocuted in a smart home.

Larry Zarker, CEO of the Building Performance Institute, presented examples of how we misread the smart home’s future – and how we’re paying for it today – at the recent National Summit on Integrating Energy Efficiency and Smart Grid in Washington, DC.

“They came up with concepts like – and I kid you not this was in the literature – that you are at the play and you are on your way home and you want to program the spa to fill to temperature and the champagne to be chilled to temperature, so that when you walk in you can enjoy those things. They were actually thinking about how to program that into the smart house,” he said.

Builders on Advil

Enamored with the possibilities, builders rushed to beat the competition, but instead incurred significant losses.

“Many of the leading builders in the country were heavily invested in this technology because they believed that when they had 500,000 of these homes built by 1991, and one million of them coming on line every year, that they would make a lot of money by being invested in the technology,” Zarker said.

They miscalculated badly. For one thing, back then builders needed to undertake massive, expensive rewiring of existing homes to achieve home smarts, according to Zarker. And what if they had actually managed to do so? The smart-wired home would already be outdated with today’s Bluetooth and other wireless technologies.

Larry Zarker, BPI

Larry Zarker, BPI CEO

“I don’t know a solar panel in America that checks the weather.”

Fast forward to recent years and the emerging smart grid. Are we again creating overly ambitious expectations? It appears so, given some of the examples Zarker presented of published statements about smart grid, among them:

  • Your electric car knows when there is extra solar or wind power, and that’s when it recharges itself.
  • You can use your smart phone to reprogram your water heater from your office
  • Your solar panels have checked the weather… They’ve told the dishwasher that the sun is shining so it can kick on. When a cloud passes, the panels tell it to pause.

“We have to be careful about how we present this,” he said. “I don’t know a solar panel in America that checks the weather. It’s smart house all over again.”

Today’s builders are wary of smart grid because they remember smart home, he said. “One of them said to me, ‘We are still taking Advil from our experience with smart house back in the 80s.’”

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10,000 year plan

On top of that, the US faces a massive numbers’ problem just taking the first step in making homes energy efficient. The US has 130 million homes and a third are over 45 years old, so many predate modern energy codes. They need efficiency improvements that would reduce their electric load to make them “smart grid ready,” he said.

How do we make the US housing stock smart grid ready in a decade? We would need to improve and update 13 million houses a year. Unfortunately, our pace has been far slower, at about 13,000 homes per year.

ramping up home performance

Presentation, “Does Smart Grid Make Sense for Dumb Houses?”
Larry Zarker, CEO Building Performance Institute, National Summit on Integrating Energy Efficiency & Smart Grid 2013

“We’re conveniently on the 10,000 year plan to get ready for smart grid. And that’s a problem. We need to figure out how to bring this mainstream, how to bring this to the remodeling industry, to the HVAC industry, to the [building] envelope industry, all the people who have something to do with house – to help them get smart grid ready.”

What to do?

Well, for one, we need to offer practical services in smart-grid ready homes that people want, such as security systems, home entertainment, health care and education services all integrated from a central remote, he said.

And what we don’t want to do is make technology promises that again let consumers down.  “Let’s create real solutions that benefit customers,” he said.

If not, well, anyone interested in a rerun of the disappointments of the 1980s?

Do you think we’re over-hyping smart grid? What’s the best way to avoid the “10,000-year plan?” Join Energy Efficiency Markets LinkedIn group and let us know your thoughts.


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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of and She has been writing about energy for more than two decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.


  1. MEASURED Comprehensive Home Performance – with it’s innate promise and accountability for delivering on promise, is the path I think can take us to this million home challenge…

  2. Frankly, I’m waiting for ‘Smart People’ to show up before I get more lathered up over ‘Smart Gizmos.’

  3. Extra services (remotes, tracking solar mounts etc) cost more. The problem with scale (13k vs 13M homes per year) is upfront cost. The banks, the realtors, and the assessors are the ones holding us back. Plus weak state energy codes (ahem, Alaska….). My view is that we either need a streamlined business model (contractor financing with collateral, aggressive low-interest lending, or large gov’t subsidy) before this can really scale up. You fix the money, you fix the scale.