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Energy-Efficient Homes Require New Kind of Electrical Panel

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Sheltering in place and working from home amidst the coronavirus pandemic has turned many homeowners’ attention to their electric bill. While the dramatic drop off in air travel, halted industrial operations and empty commercial buildings have led global carbon-dioxide emissions to fall to levels not seen since 2006 — the shift of power consumption to residences is being felt at the individual level.

One of the silver linings from the pandemic is that it has brought more attention to our environmental impact. Before the coronavirus hit, net zero homes were on the rise, in line with the growing interest in smart homes. A study that Schneider Electric conducted last year found that the majority of U.S. homeowners (74%) considered efficiency the primary benefit of smart home technology, followed by energy conservation (59%). Adoption was also being driven by the integration of renewables and lowering costs; regulatory actions around carbon emissions and sustainability; and new technology solutions that made it easier for people to retrofit an existing home.

Amid the current economic turmoil from the pandemic, there is a growing call to seize the opportunity of a green recovery and make the permanent shift a low-carbon economy. Coalitions of the world’s largest organizations, academics, policy experts and financial thinkers argue stimulus packages should prioritize long-term sustainability and resilience. Indeed, the financial impact of the pandemic will be nothing like the consequences of climate change. The International Energy Agency predicts carbon emissions will drop 8 percent this year as a result of the pandemic. If governments help fund initiatives like renewable energy and use the disruption in energy markets to shift the industry, we can capitalize on this unprecedented trajectory. 

As it stands, we’re looking at a halting expansion of wind, solar and other clean power sources, at least temporarily. But even as the clean energy industry navigates supply chain disruption, social distancing requirements, unemployment and overall financial uncertainty — the promise of renewables remains strong. While the world’s overall energy demand dropped 3.8% in the first quarter of this year, renewables were the only energy source to actually increase in demand, driven by new renewable power plants, low operating costs and priority on some electricity grids. Analysts expect the economic advantages of renewables over volatile fossil fuels will only increase in the long term.

Taking all of this into account along with our growing dependence on digital technologies in the home, I think we’ll see the demand for smart, energy efficient homes re-emerge stronger than ever as the economy improves. But in order to be ready for it, the power infrastructure of homes needs to be modernized. Fortunately, the technology is available and likely to become more widespread as new players enter the market. So what do you as a construction professional need to know?

The old gray box that has housed circuit breakers for over a century will become a thing of the past. The new connected electrical panel is the motherboard of the solar and battery-powered smart homes — complete with an EV in the garage. It performs all the functions that were once needed by a dozen different pieces of equipment. Open up this slick new console and you’ll find power electronics, sensors, processing power and software to monitor and control all the household circuits, plus solar or battery inverters, EV charger controls and grid connect-disconnect function.

This connected residential system enables the use of smart products and services that will improve energy efficiency and maximize savings based on a household’s needs and behaviors. It’s not just about visibility into energy use, it’s about actively controlling the household’s energy usage at an appliance level, even for devices that are not “smart” or connected. And a connected electrical panel is key for getting the most value out of green choices like buying an EV or installing solar panels.

The system can determine a utility’s time-of-use pricing, switch the home’s power source between solar power and the grid, and charge electric cars at off-peak times. Being able to maximize these cost savings helps spur the adoption of green technologies, so the connected electrical panel really becomes the magic key for accelerating our transition to a low-carbon economy. Consider also the rise in natural disasters we’ve been seeing such as hurricanes or last year’s wildfire in California that caused rolling utility blackouts. Equipping homes with an electrical infrastructure that can support critical loads during power outages and gives residents the ability to adjust how their backup power is delivered throughout the home is not just good business, it should be a safety requirement of homes moving forward.

Most homeowners adding renewables find their original electrical panels need an upgrade, along with new equipment such as automated transfer switches and isolation transformers — a costly and complicated upgrade. Constructing new homes with connected electrical panels from the get-go, whether or not they use renewables, means the home can provide more value and flexibility to the consumer in the long run, even if it adds more upfront cost to the project. 

Digitization is reshaping the energy landscape worldwide, requiring a new approach to residential electrical systems. Although the construction and clean energy industries have been stung by the pandemic, we have reason to believe that consumer demand for energy-efficient homes will continue to grow with remote work likely here to stay and climate action on the rise. Being up to date on the latest technologies and best practices will help construction companies and contractors grow their business and keep up with consumer demand and our evolving power grid. 

Rich Korthauer is vice president of the Home & Distribution Business for Schneider Electric.

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