Really smart meter

Energy-saving local invention

From left, Morien Roberts and Hampden Kuhns of the Desert Research Institute created a new invention to help people micromanage their energy loads.

From left, Morien Roberts and Hampden Kuhns of the Desert Research Institute created a new invention to help people micromanage their energy loads.

Photo By Kat Kerlin

If a smart meter tells a utility and the consumer how much energy is being produced at that moment in a home or building, then perhaps the device Hampden Kuhns and Morien Roberts have developed should be called something like a brilliant meter.

“Smart meters aren’t particularly smart,” says Kuhns. “Compared to what we used before they are, but it’s not going to identify the source.”

Their new meter does. It doesn’t just measure the overall energy produced, but also how much energy specific appliances are producing at any given time. It has intelligence, so to speak. The Desert Research Institute inventors are calling it and their new startup company LoadIQ.

It can measure the energy of at least 10 specific appliances—the refrigerator, hot tub, coffeemaker, washing machine, or clothes iron, for instance. Then, similar to a phone bill, it itemizes energy bills. In their test research, they found “always-on” appliances, like computers or DVD players, accounted for 19-34 percent of energy bills. Kuhns saved $200 on his own energy bill the year he tested the device in his house.

Roberts compares it to pumping gas: “You see that immediately. You pay for what you put in.” With their technology, consumers can see how much they’re paying to run specific appliance at certain times. “You may not change your action, but you’ll have the information,” says Roberts.

The idea first came to Kuhns because he experienced what many do: an inexplicable, astronomical electric bill. He thought, “There has to be a better way to know what is causing this high energy bill.” Unlike most people, he developed an algorithm—and later the meter device—to do just that. It involves a small box inserted in the circuit breaker box, which your computer accesses. While there are similar products on the market, Kuhns and Roberts have patented the software algorithms—what Roberts calls “the secret sauce”—that are key to its function.

This week begins a two-year leave for Kuhns from DRI to work on commercializing LoadIQ. He says the product will first focus on commercial buildings, like mini-marts and fast food restaurants, and he expects it will launch by the end of 2011. It could later be offered to home dwellers once the price comes down. Currently, he estimates it would cost about $500. As employees of the Nevada System of Higher Education, NSHE technically owns the patent, but Kuhns and Roberts have an exclusive licensing agreement to the patent that lets them market the product.

To date, LoadIQ has received more than $600,000 in funding, including a highly competitive $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation. And, in 2006, when LoadIQ was just a dream, they received $120,000 from the Nevada Institute for Renewable Energy Commercialization. NIREC provides seed money to clean energy-related startups. Recognizing that inventors don’t always make great businesspeople and vice versa, NIREC also connected them to people in the investment and business world.

“Without that grant, our research probably would have stopped,” says Kuhns. “It was critical.”

Though most Northern Nevadans don’t yet have any type of smart meter in their homes or businesses, nearly everyone will by the end of 2012, according to NVEnergy. But for the super smart meter, homeowners will likely have to wait a bit longer.