It’s a setting out of a James Bond movie.
Nestled in St. Petersburg, Fla., is a squat, beige building. Nothing remarkable about it on the outside. Inside, however, is something altogether different.
Inside Duke Energy’s Energy Wise Lab, emerging ideas come to life. With a core staff of seven, the lab tests a variety of consumer appliances and products, all components of the smart energy grid. The lab is currently testing a universal device to remotely control the efficiency of a variety of appliances, from water heaters to electric car charging stations.
“Our customers expect us to serve them well and to deliver reliable energy,” said Brian Savoy, Duke Energy senior vice president of business transformation and technology. “Why are we doing this innovation? People want to control their energy use and save money. We’re providing the services customers want now and in the future.”
About a decade ago, Duke Energy decided to revive an old call center building for a meter-update project. Rather than let the building return to its cubicle fate when the project finished, the Energy Wise Lab was born.
Today, when ideas emerge from Duke Energy leaders around the country, the ones deemed viable get sent to the lab’s team, said Denise Grimm, IT manager at the lab. In addition to five labs where staff assemble and test new gadgets, there are three virtual homes for testing.
Once the idea is subjected to an exhaustive level of testing and virtual home use, Duke Energy employees in Florida can volunteer to test the devices in their own homes.
For the past two years, the lab has primarily tested a device that consumers can install themselves and Duke Energy can use to communicate remotely with a variety of home appliances, including:
Water heaters: The premise behind this pilot is water heaters do not need to run 24 hours a day to provide hot water. By controlling when water heaters preheat, Duke Energy can reduce excessive use of the energy grid while still providing hot water. Currently, 20 employees are testing these smart water heaters in their homes, including senior IT business analyst – and Energy Wise Lab team member – Chris Seeley.
“It has verified,” Seeley said, “what we were expecting from the lab.”
Pool pumps: Pools are popular in Florida, and pumps can consume enormous amounts of energy because they typically run full bore 10 hours a day. In this pilot, Duke Energy remotely runs pumps at variable speeds so the same amount of water circulates, but not always robustly. Currently, nine employees are testing this technology at their homes.
Thermostats: Did you know that adjusting your thermostat by just 2 degrees during the day can save energy and money? This pilot allows Duke Energy to remotely adjust thermostats to avoid grid overload. About 11 employees, including Yvonne Ponce, are testing this technology. She said she noticed a savings in her electric bill.
“I can watch the monitor that sits in my den and turn off fans or lights, and it actually makes a difference in usage,” said Ponce, work management specialist II. “It would have been cool to have when my children were home to teach them about their usage.”
Electric car charging stations: Before electric cars become the norm, Duke Energy wants to make sure it stays ahead of the electric demand by designing efficient, smart charging stations. This project is still in the lab testing stage.
Eventually, these new technologies will be deployed to consumers.
“This lab positions our company to win in the future,” said Savoy, who is also overseeing the building of a massive innovation division in an old warehouse section of Charlotte, N.C.
“We’re an over-100-year-old company with a lot of procedures and processes in place. So how do we stay relevant?”