Many technologies in the energy sector are now getting modernized with “smart” and connected functionality that enables them to be both more efficient and more aware.
Take the average electronic device, for instance, that employs ENERGY STAR® and similar certified ratings. Even though they aren’t directly a part of the energy market, they do have an impact on the overall power grid. And more modern devices are designed to be efficient, waste less energy and often include a plethora of auto-shutdown and energy-saving features. It’s a welcome change, and it’s happening almost everywhere — including with appliances, electronics and home entertainment systems, lights, vehicles and much more.
Go down to the basement or garage of your home — or the maintenance closet, if you’re at a business — and you’ll find the circuit breaker. Chances are, you’ll find an ancient, outdated model that’s been sitting there for years, if not decades. These workhorses are finally getting an update to deliver more power, performance, efficiency — and yes, cost savings.
For quite a long time, the breaker market has been a lucrative, yet stagnant, business when it comes to innovation. It’s clear the change is necessary because now those breakers are getting modernized, the total value is increasing. Projections reveal a global market of $13 to $19 billion by the end of the decade.
That market is largely dominated by brand names such as Toshiba, ABB, Siemens, Schneider Electric, Mitsubishi, GE’s Alstom and many others.
How Are Circuit Breakers Becoming Smarter?
Older, outdated circuit breakers are simple. For the most part, even in operation, they sit idle, not facilitating energy transfers as much as you’d think. A breaker is designed to bridge the gap between all electrical connections on a property. Should one circuit experience a short or serious problem, the breaker disables that area, keeping everything else safe. It also helps prevent disasters such as electrical fires.
Older units are essentially a static box, with a series of switches and connections for the electrical wires and outlets. Believe it or not, it’s possible to refurbish and recondition circuit breakers. That’s one way to refresh the technology, while the other is to install new breakers outright. The route you choose depends on your budget.
The new models incorporate a variety of bleeding-edge technologies, including wireless connectivity, big data support and smart measurement tools or meters. Imagine being able to check the status and health of a circuit breaker from your smartphone or tablet. That’s exactly where we’re headed.
Of course, this adds a ton of convenience for energy professionals, but it also creates some new opportunities. Utility companies and business owners can track output more closely and adjust various systems to meet grid or financial limits. This also makes installing a solar battery and distribution system much easier, as well as making it possible to track incoming energy and output. With a smart breaker, you could, for instance, use a solar-based system for on-demand power adjusting generation to boost in-the-moment power, or to bank stored energy for later.
Much of this is currently theoretical, but companies are testing and developing some of the capabilities under real-world conditions, so it’s not a pipe dream.
Eaton’s Energy Management Breaker
Major provider Eaton is partnering with the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) to test out a series of smart circuit breakers they’ve developed. They have installed the hardware in about 500 U.S. homes with a handful of utility companies.
Both Eaton and EPRI will be watching closely to ensure the breakers provide detailed information about energy consumption, controls and more. They can send alerts and communicate with other smart equipment, like thermostats, water heaters and the power grid. They have a unique feature that allows them to switch off power completely for a property in the event of an emergency.
According to EPRI’s senior technical executive, Tom Reddoch, they are “trying to understand the functionality and potential value propositions for each device, [by] working on utility-owned use cases.”
The two organizations hope that by the end of 2018, they will have “sufficient field data to answer questions about the functional features” of the smart circuit breakers.
Smart Breakers Are Becoming More Common
Eaton isn’t the only company working on updated technology, however. Siemens recently invested in Atom Power, a North Carolina-based startup that developed a solid-state circuit breaker. It offers digital power controls and monitoring in place of the age-old electromechanical breaker types.
Other brands like Neurio, Ecoisme and Belkin’s Echo technology are all making a huge impact in the efficient energy sector, as well. However, these aren’t meant to replace existing circuit breakers, but instead to augment them by adding modern functionalities.
They’re certainly an ideal solution for anyone who wants to conserve energy, lower the costs of their power bill or just take advantage of the added conveniences smart technology can offer.