What else could we teach a circuit breaker to do?

Recently, Eaton began a first-of-its-kind energy management field test in collaboration with EPRI and utility providers across the country. At its core is a circuit breaker that thinks and acts more like a smartphone. And it’s poised to reset the way consumers manage their home energy use—and fundamentally change the way we think about the electrical grid.

Smart circuit breakers and the never-ending utility tug of war

Utilities are in a constant battle to meet challenging—and sometimes competing demands. They are at the heart of an increasingly digital economy and their success depends on the always on, always available flow of power—yet they’re under constant pressure to reduce energy usage. They must maintain a rapidly aging grid while working to make it smarter and more responsive than ever. And they need to increase the use of renewables while energy sources like solar and wind are inherently uncontrollable, often customer owned and rarely metered properly.

In the “grid of the future,” managing the load is becoming just as important as managing energy at the source. To keep costs down and service levels up, consumers become a critical piece of the energy puzzle. Demand response programs to better manage energy usage require actively engaged consumers and highly connected homes.

Early advances in smart home technology have done a lot to open consumers’ minds to new ways to increase their comfort while saving them money and energy. Inspired by the success of companies like Nest, the smart home market has been surging in recent years. In fact, some reports estimate it will be worth $120 Billion by 2022. * And with the rush of new market entrants has come a tangle of new devices and new home networks, all from different vendors, all running on different platforms—and all generating data that utility companies can’t see or use.

Eaton engineers realized that maybe the solution was upstream, away from the devices and toward the load center. By reimagining one of the most fundamental technologies of power management, they might re-imagine the power grid itself.

The path to a smart home is through the circuit breaker

You’ll find circuit breakers in nearly every modern home and business around the world. One of the most basic pieces of power management hardware, circuit breakers are the first place that electricity flows as it enters a home or building.

This makes them powerful gateways to the smart home—and the smart grid.

Not long ago, Eaton engineers began looking at this ever-present technology asking, “What else could we teach a circuit breaker to do?”

To really make a difference in energy efficiency, it’s important to understand where electrical loads live. Approximately 80% of a home’s electrical load is concentrated on a small number of dedicated circuit breakers, including the water heater, major appliances and HVAC systems.

When smart thermostats like the Nest “learning thermostat” came to market, consumers began to see how technology could help homes adapt to their lifestyles while saving energy. Imagine if you could do the same thing, not just for the thermostat, but for 80% of the home’s electrical load? Today, Eaton is poised to do just that—making circuit breakers intelligent, responsive and more critically important than ever.

Enter the Energy Management Circuit Breaker

Two years ago, Eaton began working with EPRI, the Electric Power Research Institute, to field test a revolutionary “Energy Management Circuit Breaker” (EMCB) in 12 regional utilities across the U.S., stretching from North Carolina to Hawaii, beginning in the fall of 2016. Eaton and EPRI designed the field test program to evaluate how this new technology for end-use energy/load monitoring and control can help improve utility service and optimize the grid.

Eaton’s EMCB is an industry-first: a next-generation “smart breaker” that has the safety functionality of a standard circuit breaker with cloud-connectivity and on-board intelligence built in. It is a staggering transformation of circuit breaker technology and offers revenue-grade branch circuit metering, communications capabilities and remote access. The breaker can be monitored and controlled without compromising any of the circuit breaker’s traditional safety features.

It’s fair to say that comparing the EMCB to a circuit breaker is like comparing a smartphone to a rotary-dial telephone. The EMCB combines Eaton’s unparalleled experience in circuit protection with Internet of Things (IoT) functionality and brings it directly to the load panel. In fact, Eaton’s EMCB has a lot in common with the iPhone and Nest.

Early in the development cycle, Eaton formed a critical partnership with Electric Imp, a company with a world-leading IoT platform founded by Hugo Fiennes. Fiennes led the hardware team responsible for the first four generations of the Apple iPhone, and then went on to design and architect the hardware for the Nest Thermostat. Electric Imp’s unique IoT connectivity architecture made it possible for Eaton to quickly meet the key business and technical requirements that utility providers demand: security, flexibility, scalability and reliability.

Additionally, the EMCBs were designed to be easy to install. They retrofit into existing Eaton (both current and legacy) load centers and follow the same installation as a regular circuit breaker. So there’s no need for any additional hardware in the panel or special gateways in the home.

The EMCB’s powerful connectivity solves major challenges that have kept utility-sponsored demand response programs from reaching their full potential.

Setting the stage for a win-win scenario

Enthusiasm is high. That’s because, by placing intelligence and metering at the branch circuit breaker level, Eaton EMCBs offer a broad range of benefits to consumers and utility providers alike.

For consumers, energy savings are just the beginning. Much like traditional demand-response programs, homes with EMCBs enable utilities to remotely cycle major loads like air conditioners and water heaters to help offset peak usage energy demands, thus saving money. The EMCB’s user interface can ultimately become a real-time energy dashboard allowing the utilities and the consumers themselves better understand when and how they use electricity. It’s like putting your entire home on a FitBit. And greater knowledge promotes better choices, from installing energy-saving appliances and lighting to adopting better energy usage practices.

For utilities, the EMCB is an entirely new kind of energy management device—a smart breaker that carries functionality suitable for a variety of end-use applications, including Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) and Home Area Networks (HAN), as well as Demand Response (DR) and solar installation monitoring.

Eaton’s EMCB improves integration of distributed energy resources and can help maximize asset utilization for the utility, which could directly translate to lower cost of electricity for consumers. In the future, EMCBs could also simplify the charging and metering of plug-in electric vehicles.

Shaping the future of energy management

The EMCB field test may prove to be the dawn of a new age for grid optimization and energy management as it changes the way consumers use energy—and the way utilities plan, monitor, manage and evolve the grid. Look for ongoing technology updates and news on the program as Eaton, EPRI, Electric Imp and utilities across the nation begin shaping the future of energy today.