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Facility to test home energy use

Lab will gauge efficiency of two model houses

YAKIMA – Pacific Northwest National Laboratory plans to open a new research facility today aimed at finding new ways to reduce residential energy use and demand on the power grid in the region.

The facility is comprised of two identically manufactured homes, one equipped with the latest energy-efficient technology and the other to serve as a control model – without the gadgets – to gauge how well they work.

Similar efforts have been undertaken in North Carolina, Florida and Montreal, but the homes are the first of their kind in the Northwest.

The project is part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Building America program, whose goal is to reduce home energy use by as much as 50 percent.

“This is an ambitious research goal, so we are trying different technologies and measures to see what is the best way to achieve it,” said Subrato Chandra, senior buildings engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland.

The national laboratory’s research areas include science and environment, energy, defense and national security. The laboratory employs about 4,900 people.

The homes, which are to be opened with a ribbon-cutting ceremony today, are intended to represent typical manufactured homes in the region, not the more efficient new homes being constructed today.

In the first nine months of the program, one home will be equipped with highly insulated, triple-pane windows, while the other home will have standard double-pane, aluminum windows.

Researchers then will study the heating performance and evaluate the energy savings from them, as well as how efficient they are for reducing peak demands on the electric grid, Chandra said. Comfort levels, condensation and maintenance benefits also will be evaluated.

In the spring, similar research will be conducted with “smart appliances” that are programmed to run when electric rates are lower, so they can better manage their power usage. They include a refrigerator, washer and dishwasher.

Research is being conducted around the country to try to find ways to shave electricity demand during peak times, which would save utilities and consumers money. That is particularly true at periods of peak demand for heat or air conditioning, such as extremely cold days or steamy hot ones.

The laboratory plans to conduct additional research into other potential energy-savers: lighting, water heaters, insulation, heating systems and small appliances.

PNNL also is taking research suggestions from other energy groups in the region, such as the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, a nonprofit organization funded by 134 Northwest utilities to seek out energy-saving opportunities in the marketplace.

“We’re hoping that by having some of these smart-grid technologies tried out, we’ll be able to identify the social patterns in the operations of the house and determine areas for savings,” said Geoff Wickes, NEEA program manager for emerging technologies.

Wickes said his group hopes the research includes ways to reduce the energy demand among plug-in appliances.

Overall, consumer electronics accounted for about 5 percent of the total power load in the region in the early 1990s. Today, it exceeds 15 percent, with part of that increase attributed to the growth among big-screen televisions.

The group recently encouraged large retailers to stock more energy-efficient televisions and worked with the federal government to improve energy efficiency standards for them.

At the beginning of 2011, energy-efficient televisions accounted for just 12 percent of sales in the region, but that is expected to grow to as much as 40 percent by year’s end, according to NEEA.

“Televisions today are bigger and do more things and they take more power,” Wickes said. “Things are getting out of control, and we don’t want to get in a situation where television load is taking all the excess power we make here.”


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