Hannah Kennedy wakes up in the morning, turns to Alexa — a smart speaker — and asks, “What’s the weather like today? What are the traffic conditions?”
She leaves for work, checking an app on her phone that warns her if any doors or windows have been left open at home. She looks at the app two or three more times during the day to monitor the thermostat or let a delivery in. At the grocery store, she checks to see if she has enough milk, via the refrigerator’s in-built camera.
Kennedy is living in Reynolds Landing, a neighborhood of 62 smart homes developed by Alabama Power on the outskirts of Birmingham, Alabama. It is part of an experiment by the utility company to imagine how homes will look in 2040.
With North America’s smart home market expected to grow from $12 billion to $36 billion in yearly revenues between 2017 and 2022, according to market research firm Berg Insight, this experiment could foretell the future of home design. By 2022, the report estimates that 63 million households in North America will have adopted smart home systems.
“What we’ve done here is create some very efficient homes, connect them up, and we’re trying to understand how we’re serving those customers…and how they’re using that energy and interacting with those devices in their homes,” Todd Rath, Alabama Power’s marketing director, tells CNN Business.
Homes at Reynolds Landing are 35% more efficient than standard newly built homes in the area, earning Alabama Power the Alliance to Save Energy’s 2019 Stars of Energy Efficiency Award. The electricity that powers them is generated locally, by a microgrid made up of solar panels, battery storage and a backup natural gas generator.
The biggest energy savers are the temperature control systems, which are particularly important in Alabama’s extreme climate. “Here in the southeast United States, we have hot summers but also really cold snaps in the winter,” says Rath. “The biggest energy user in an individual home is the heating and air-con system.”
Homeowners can control temperature ranges in multiple zones in their home to prevent wasting energy heating or cooling unused rooms. The microgrid helps to maximize these energy savings — if it’s a mild day and homes don’t need as much energy, it turns on the heat pump and water heater to store excess energy for later.
The houses are kitted out with a smart home system that includes thermostats, voice-activated security and interconnected kitchen appliances.
This means that the homeowner can control almost everything remotely: from room temperature to opening the door and turning on the oven.
Such smart devices use less energy than heating and air conditioning units, and consumers love remote control and tactile interaction, says Nick Lange, a consultant at sustainable energy company VEIC.
“The little things do add up” he says. “Smart thermostats are a good example of a relatively pain-free way to have a big impact.”
For some, advanced technology can be an obstacle. “There are always moments when I feel like it’s a step ahead,” says Kennedy, especially with older people like her parents who might not have had access to technology at a younger age.
“But when they hear about the impact that we’re seeing financially … how we’re using less energy and living more efficiently, I would say they are both open and interested,” she says.
Houses in the smart neighborhood came onto the market in the usual fashion, costing around $400,000 each — about average for a home in the area, says Rath.
When buying a home, residents agreed to share anonymized data on energy usage with Alabama Power and meet researchers monthly to discuss their experience and likes and dislikes.
“Each of the homeowners is part of this research project, we call it the living laboratory,” says Rath.
But smart products could make homeowners less secure. A 2019 report by Avast, a cybersecurity software company, found that 40% of digital homes worldwide contained at least one device vulnerable to cyber attacks — citing printers as the most common entry point.
The study suggests that the rapid growth of the Internet of Things — a system of devices and objects connected to the internet, which is predicted to more than triple by 2025 to over 75 billion devices — puts manufacturers under pressure to deliver affordable smart devices and security features can be neglected.
“A low cost smart thermostat is very open to the world, and if that’s the one that is present in the market it becomes a juicy target for someone to exact ransom software,” says Lange.
“But I think the benefits outweigh the risk,” he adds. By 2040, both smart home technologies and the security software available will be far more sophisticated. “What [Alabama Power] put together is a realistic example of what future homes communities are likely to have, but I can say almost certainly that those future homes will be better versions of them,” he says.