In a downtown Toronto industrial loft, engineer Michael Glenn is demonstrating what looks like the ultimate light switch: He taps a key on his laptop computer, and a lamp on the other side of the building obediently clicks on, then off again. It doesn't seem like that big a deal until he explains that he could control that same lamp from the other side of the world.
Even if Mr. Glenn were on another continent, he could not only control the lamp over the Internet, but also check how much power it was consuming. While he was at it, Mr. Glenn could also see whether his refrigerator was working properly, turn off the lights in his office or compare his home's power consumption to the houses around it.
Behind this wizardry is a Canadian-made device called the TalkingPlug that promises to revolutionize the way we use electrical power by connecting appliances to a wireless network that lets you track and control them from anywhere.
"It will completely transform our world when plugs talk to each other and interact with each other," says Ron Dembo, CEO of Zerofootprint, one of the companies behind the TalkingPlug. Mr. Glenn is the firm's vice-president of products.
The key to the TalkingPlug system is an Internet-enabled receptacle that transmits data about devices that are plugged into it. Every appliance in a household (or an office) can be connected to a TalkingPlug, which identifies the appliance through a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tag. On your computer screen (or smartphone) you can monitor the power consumption of your desk lamp, your toaster or your whole house.
The associated software program, named ZeroMeter, features a screen that looks like the gas gauge of a car, with a needle sweeping through a green and orange arc, showing the exact amount and cost of power running through the TalkingPlug.
The TalkingPlug is expected to reach the market in about a year. At the moment, the cost of each outlet is more than $50, but that price is expected to come down.
Energy experts believe smart power systems like this are an important step forward in the reduction of carbon emissions. Jack Gibbons, chair of the Ontario Clean Air Alliance, says huge amounts of power are wasted because consumers don't realize how much their appliances consume. "Once you find out what you're actually using, you can start making changes," he says.
At the moment, all we have to go on are electricity meter readings, which show how many kilowatts an institution (or household) consumes overall. But because it monitors the consumption of individual devices, the TalkingPlug will enable more accurate analysis.
"That's a critical element," says Marion Fraser, president of Fraser & Company energy consulting. "The ability to drill down and see exactly what you're using and how you're using it is very significant." Ms. Fraser says even professional building managers find it difficult to determine how much power is actually consumed - and when they start looking into it, there can be some major surprises. When Toronto schools were audited for energy use, for example, they learned that schools of nearly identical size and construction varied by as much as 350 per cent in their power usage.
Ms. Fraser also cites the case of a Home Hardware storeowner who was confounded by consistently high power bills. Since he had no way of measuring each device, the storeowner began turning off circuits one at a time and watching what the meter did. After turning off every circuit, the meter was still showing power consumption. After investigation, the storeowner discovered that heating elements installed in the roof to melt ice had been wired to stay on year-round.
This revelation led him to check out his house, where he learned that many of his appliances were consuming power even when they were off (a phenomenon known as "vampire" loss.) The worst culprit was a giant subwoofer for his home entertainment system that was using more than a kilowatt of power every month (approximately $75 at current prices.) Ms. Fraser says a device like the TalkingPlug could instantly reveal this kind of waste.
"None of us really knows how we use electrical power and where it all goes," says Mr. Dembo. "Now we will." He believes the TalkingPlug can reduce the power consumption of the average home by as much as 25 per cent through more efficient control of electrical devices - and by making residents aware of how much those appliances actually use.
The invention has generated considerable buzz (it was named a Top 10 gadget of the year by Scientific American magazine) and won a number of awards. Mr. Dembo, a former Yale University mathematics professor who made his name creating risk-analysis software for the financial-services industry, got the idea for a networked plug several years ago. His research led him to OFI, an Ontario electrical equipment manufacturer that had developed a product called the Safe Plug, designed to prevent electrical fires by interfacing with appliances and delivering only the power they were rated for.
Mr. Dembo was intrigued by Safe Plug's unique capabilities, and realized it would be the perfect starting point for the networked outlet he envisioned. "It opened a lot of doors," says Mr. Dembo. Zerofootprint has spent the past three years refining the plug's technical details and writing the software that makes the system work.
Although the TalkingPlug resembles a standard multi-plug outlet, it is a far different product under its tiny plastic hood.
"The difference is like the difference between an F-16 and an electric scooter," says Mr. Dembo. "There's a lot of technology inside."
A number of companies have developed software-driven electrical power analysis systems. Among them is Google, with its new Power Meter, a free online system that allows you to monitor your home's consumption. But the TalkingPlug is different than any of its competitors, because it allows consumers to monitor and analyze every single device in their home.
"That's the defining part of the system," says Mr. Glenn. "It's unique."
The TalkingPlug makes every appliance in a home part of a network that can be monitored and controlled through a web-based software interface. You can turn an appliance or off from your cell phone. You can see if an electrical device is using too much power due to an electrical fault. (This is more common than you would expect - it has been estimated that 15 per cent of all refrigerators consume more power than their specifications indicate.) Networked appliance monitoring will create a vast new range of possibilities.
Zerofootprint engineers are now working on a proximity-based functions that will automatically reduce heating and cooling functions when you leave your house, then restore them when you're on your way home. (GPS-enabled cellphones make it quite simple to determine where you are, and whether you're headed to your house or away from it.)
The TalkingPlug also has the potential to let customers sell power back to the grid. At the moment, this isn't a major consideration, but that may change with the adoption of electric cars, since each vehicle can store a substantial amount of electrical energy.
"We're all going to become electricity traders," says Mr. Dembo. "My car is in the garage, but [say]I'm in Africa. So I sell the power from my car and it gets recharged before I come home. There is a natural arbitrage to electricity."
Zerofootprint's software allows countless ways to analyze that information from TalkingPlugs. Consumers can compare their usage to other homes, or see how their appliances stack up against other models. Companies can analyze their power use, or even track their carbon footprint using Zerofootprint's Velo Enterprise Gateway software.
Because it can track and identify individual electrical devices, the TalkingPlug has attracted interest from appliance manufacturers, according to Mr. Dembo.
"Right now, they have no idea what happens to their machine once it leaves their factory," he says. "Now they'll know where it went, how it's being used, and whether it's working properly. It changes the whole picture."
But as the TalkingPlug approaches its commercial launch, Zerofootprint executives believe its most important role will be to help homeowners track and control their appliances: "You're going to relate to your house in a whole new way," Mr. Glenn says. "You can connect with it from anywhere."