When New York electrical provider Con Edison wanted to save energy costs and develop granular metrics on residential electrical use, they tried something different: Letting customers control their air conditioners by smartphone remote control.
This summer, Con Edison teamed up with startup ThinkEco to launch the second year of the CoolNYC program, which provides free smart outlets to customers. Participation is limited to New York residents in large apartment buildings with window air conditioners, although ThinkEco’s smart outlets can be purchased on the retail market. According to ThinkEco CSO Mei Shibata, 8,250 air conditioners are currently linked to the Con Edison program. Con Edison is also offering subsidized ThinkEco outlets through Best Buy to customers who don’t live in covered buildings; ordinary Con Ed customers will obtain a $25.00 Best Buy gift card at the end of summer in exchange for purchasing a ThinkEco outlet and participating in the entirety of CoolNYC.
The smart outlets, which ThinkEco markets under the name "modlets," are outlet plug-ins that communicate with a customer’s home computer through a USB ZigBee dongle. Cloud-based software allows customers to control and monitor the energy consumption of plugged-in devices; for participants in programs such as CoolNYC, granular analytics on electrical activity and customer usage are also recorded. CoolNYC participants also receive a thermostat accessory that allow them to remotely turn their air conditioner on or off depending on the outside temperature. These thermostat accessories, however, also give the electrical utility the ability to override an air conditioner’s temperature and force the temperature up in customers apartments during periods of peak usage.
Unlike the majority of Americans, New Yorkers typically live in buildings with window-mounted air conditioners. Central air conditioning is the exception to the rule outside of certain apartment buildings or suburban portions of the outer boroughs.
Customers control the power output of attached devices through either a website or an Android/iPhone app; a scheduling feature lets users automatically shut down their devices when they leave for work, and determine when they will turn back on. For instance, a user can schedule their air conditioner to turn on 15 minutes before they expect to arrive home. Only one account is required per household, and users can control all the air conditioners in their apartment via the smartphone app or website.
While ThinkEco’s retail smart outlets have two plugs, the free CoolNYC outlets only contain one plug. Con Ed customers in New York can purchase a smart air conditioner kit at Best Buy for $69.95 and get a $25 rebate at the end of summer; the company also offers outlets online for $59.95 including shipping.
Shibata told Co.Exist that the program is "part education, and part convenience," and that one of Con Ed’s big reasons for participating is energy savings: By training people to turn their air conditioners off while away and to make it easy for them to turn them on before they return home, the utility saves crucial power during an extremely hot summer. Users (and Con Ed) are also given access to deep granular data on their air conditioner’s power usage to boot.
Of course, the program isn’t perfect. Con Ed has had trouble promoting CoolNYC: a second rounds of mailers was sent to residential buildings well into the summer and there has been uneven promotion via public transit and television. The Con Ed partnership is ThinkEco’s only current project to provide free smart outlets for air conditioners but pilot developments are already underway in other cities.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the protocol that CoolNYC outfits use; it is ZigBee, not wifi.