Solar and smart homes converge in Texas

Photo by Spencer Selvidge

Texas has made remarkable strides forward in recent months as a national leader in both solar energy adoption and smart home creation. The fifth annual Energy Thought Summit (ETS18) in Austin this month will gather industry, government and utility professionals to discuss not only these two technologies and their implementation, but also everything from the way autonomous vehicles will affect energy markets to how people will exist with artificial intelligence in an increasingly AI-driven world.

Solar energy adoption and smart home creation complement each other and together promise Texas homeowners added energy efficiency and new benefits in comfort, convenience, affordability and reliability.

Start with smart homes. Lennar, the nation’s largest homebuilder, last month introduced a WiFi-powered smart home near Austin that it says will be the model not only for those in at least 49 different communities in the Austin area, but for all its homes nationally. Lennar built the home in partnership with the Amazon Echo business unit, which produces the Alexa voice control system. The home features lights, a thermostat, locks, entertainment systems, window blinds and a range of other devices that can be controlled with voice commands.

Elsewhere last month, developers began work on the Midway Solar project, which will eventually generate enough power to run 50,000 homes in the Austin area. Austin already generates 35 percent of its energy from renewables, and Texas has added 1.8 GW of solar to date. More than 80 percent of that has been added in the past two years, ranking Texas third in the nation by new capacity. The Texas solar industry now employs approximately 10,000 people, more than double the number of people employed three years ago.

These converging forces offer:

  • Better energy efficiency, with smart devices that turn lights and air conditioners on and off, saving both money and and from homes producing their own solar requiring less energy.
  • Added comfort and convenience, as smart devices learn from users and quickly begin to manage things for them. Smart security systems can open locks for you as you approach a door. Smart refrigerators know when you’re running out of milk and can order more. Smart entertainment systems know which sort of music you like and what time your favorite programs are on.
  • Greater affordability: Homes that generate their own energy from solar power don’t have to spend as much buying power from utility companies. And investments in home solar panel units make sense: The cost of solar has fallen more than 70 percent since 2009, and is more than 130 times cheaper than it was in 1977. In many areas of the country, the return on a solar panel investment could outpace that of the historical S&P average.
  • Increased reliability in homes that produce their own solar power and save it via battery, therefore, ending worries about electric grids going out because of extreme weather events.

Best of all, there won’t be complicated things to learn.

Have you ever gotten a fancy new TV or audio system with a remote control that’s taken you an hour or more to learn how to use? You won’t have that problem anymore. Smart homes do their own learning.

Your washing machine is likely to know when the lowest power rates are available and turn itself on then. Sprinkler systems can tell it’s raining. Lighting and thermostat systems can turn lights off and heat down when you’re not at home.

The number of smart devices already in use is tremendous: It includes security cameras, locks, lights, major appliances (refrigerators, washing machines), audio and video equipment, weather tracking systems, home irrigation appliances, thermostats, air conditioners, fans, heaters and more.

The vision for the solar-powered smart home is compelling, and homeowners will soon have both an undreamed number of automated new conveniences and unprecedented control over their energy use.

Michael Bates

Global general manager of energy, Intel Corp.