In Net-frenzied 1999, General Electric took the wraps off a pair of appliances—a refrigerator and microwave—that could be networked though the Internet. As the media (this magazine included) touted such "benefits" as Web-based microwave activation, the public yawned. It's little wonder.
But Americans missed the point, and the potential. Consider Italy, where electricity is at such a premium that government limits how much each household can draw at any one time. Exceed the limit, and your power goes poof. That's quite an incentive to manage electricity demands, and that's exactly where networked appliances come in.
In 2001 Merloni, Europe's third-largest appliance manufacturer, rolled out a line of connected appliances—clothes washers, dishwashers, refrigerators, ovens—called Ariston Digital that work together to ensure you don't exceed your power allotment. Turn on the oven, for example, and the fridge relinquishes a bit of its juice. The first year, Merloni sold 1 million refrigerators alone.
But it didn't stop there. Next came pay-per-use clothes washers for the home. Merloni owns the washer; do a load and it sends a report back to the company. You get a monthly bill. Can pay-per-use ovens be far behind?
Americans aren't punished with clothes-washing-induced blackouts (yet), but money and energy savings are just the beginning. Overheating clothes dryers, for example, cause more than 15,000 house fires in the United States each year. Would consumers pay a few bucks a month for remote monitoring? Quite possibly. The lesson is clear: Smart appliances with smart benefits make sense. We need more of both.
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.