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Want to electrify your home? It might need this upgrade first.

First I added an electric vehicle charger. Then an induction stove. Soon, I’ll swap out my rusting 25-year-old gas water heater for an ultraefficient heat pump. What comes next?

Nothing — unless I get more juice from my utility. Just one additional appliance will overwhelm the 100-amperage (amp) electric panel that connects me to the grid.

My dilemma is one shared by at least 48 million other homes in the United States: Our connections to the electrical grid are stuck in the mid-20th century, when fossil fuels, not electricity, supplied much of our energy. To fully electrify, we’ll need to rethink those gray metal boxes with breaker switches wired to the grid.

Upgrading your panel to get more power is not always possible. Contractors are booked. Utilities are overwhelmed. Equipment is in short supply. And it’s expensive.

That’s a $100 billion roadblock to home electrification in America, according to Pecan Street, a nonprofit climate and energy research firm that estimates as many 48 million single-family households would need to be upgraded.

Luckily, the lowly electric panel is getting a digital brain. These “smart panels” can act as a traffic cop over the stream of electrons powering your life, tracking and adjusting the energy demand of devices from toasters to electric cars so you don’t trip any breakers. And if you’re in a rush to add big electric appliances, it may be much faster than a traditional upgrade.

Here’s how to electrify our homes without blowing a fuse.

What are smart electric panels?

If you’ve ever walked into an office building, a computer was probably helping manage the air conditioner and dimming the lights. These networks of chips, relays and sensors — known as energy management systems — ensure companies avoid outages and save every last penny on their utility bill.

They’re now arriving in homes as Americans add more electric appliances, drawing more current than a typical 100-amp electric panel can handle. Electric cooking ranges and EVs are the trigger for many to upgrade their panels, according to Ben Hertz-Shargel of Wood Mackenzie, a clean energy consulting firm. Without more capacity, the little black switches in your electric panels known as breakers will flip off when overloaded.

Another solution, though, is ensuring all your appliances don’t run full blast at the same time.

Span is one of the handful of smart panel companies reimagining the old metal box as a connected computer. Its hub can detect electrical devices in your home, distinguishing devices’ energy signature. The smart panel then tracks and forecasts how you use each one. Based on that information, it orchestrates your home’s energy consumption either by talking directly to connected devices — over WiFi or near-range signals — or physically turning on and off circuits when they near capacity. Span, which sells its smart panels for about $3,500, says it has struck deals with Kenmore and Mitsubishi to communicate with appliances directly.

Installing a smart panel may avoid an upgrade ranging from $1,000 to $5,000. By code, electric panels must be able to handle all appliances running at the same time, roughly 10 to 20 times higher than the average load. That’s exceedingly rare, says Arch Rao, Span’s founder and chief executive, and formerly the head of product for Tesla. Span’s customer data suggest such peaks occur less than 1 percent of the time over a year, but the company’s software always keeps amperage below the rated capacity by ramping devices up or down.

Smart panels can also lower your utility bill. They take advantage of rates that vary by the time of day, picking the cheapest time to charge your devices. If you have solar panels, they can soak up their output at peak hours, avoiding buying from the grid, or optimizing the use of big home batteries during blackouts. Renters can even benefit since a single unit can be retrofitted for heavier loads without rewiring the entire building.

The biggest winner? Efforts to cut emissions from buildings, which account for roughly 20 percent of overall U.S. emissions.

If utilities’ customers need more power at home, a bigger panel may not be enough. Utilities must invest billions in infrastructure to deliver that electricity, and stabilize the grid as more intermittent, clean energy comes online. Home-energy management systems could avoid billions of dollars in upgrades.

“We are going through electrification for both homes and transportation,” says Helia Zandi, a researcher at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “Orchestration between them at scale is really important to make the future we are looking for.”

Other ways to monitor your power

Brian LaMorte, an independent electrical and HVAC contractor in New York, says he’s installed the Span panels for about $4,000 each around the state. That’s on top of the $3,500 cost of the panel.

“It’s a no-brainer for people who are going to do a service upgrade that’s either impossible or over $10,000,” he says. “It’s either your only option or it’s going to save you money.”

As cheaper panels hit the market, and rebates roll out under the Inflation Reduction Act shaving thousands off the price, he expects this to come within reach of low- and middle-income homeowners. Other companies selling smart panels are Schneider Electric and Lumin.

You can also take intermediate steps. NeoCharge, SimpleSwitch and Splitvolt sell smart subpanels and breakers that can control one or a handful of circuits rather than the whole house to balance major loads, such as an EV charger and dryer.

But if you’re willing to wait, you may be able to manage your home’s energy use from your electric meter, the unassuming glass-enclosed device on your house.

That’s what Sense, a start-up based in Cambridge, Mass., is doing.

For now, the company sells a home-energy monitoring system. It clamps onto your conventional panel to identify and track devices’ electrical consumption with software similar to voice recognition. But soon, predicts Michael Phillips, Sense’s co-founder and chief executive, his company’s software (and others like it) will come installed as a standard feature of smart meters. This will offer homeowners an app store-like experience to identify and control their devices’ energy consumption, no hardware required. The smart meters will communicate directly with devices to modulate their consumption. Both Sense and Span have struck deals with manufacturers to include their software in smart meters.

“We want to be like Google Maps on an iPhone,” says Phillips. “The smart meter is where this should happen.”

What should you do today?

If you need the extra electrons right now and face an expensive — or delayed — utility upgrade, smart panels offer a potential solution. States are likely to upgrade their electric code to allow homeowners to exceed their panels’ rated capacity if they have an energy management system. EV chargers can already do this under the 2023 National Electricity Code, but it could take years for states to adopt it.

For those who just need to manage a few circuits — trading off the load of an EV charger and a clothes dryer, for example — retrofits such as a smart breaker can fit the bill.

If you’re not in a rush, the next decade or so should see a new generation of smart meters preloaded with software to communicate and control your devices. States such as New York are already rolling them out. Hertz-Shargel of Wood Mackenzie expects most homes will end up with smart meters rather than smart panels as everyone from Sense to Span jostles to partner with utilities.

If it’s probably only a matter of time before millions of people can control their home’s electricity from a smartphone, how long will we have to wait for this future?

“We’re years out,” says Hertz-Shargel, “but not ten years out.”


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