A few times this summer, when millions of air conditioners strain the Toronto region's power grid, that pencil-tip-sized amber dot will blink. It will be asking Tsapoitis to turn the switch off Â— unless he's already programmed his house to make that move for him.
This is the beginning of a new way of thinking about electricity, and the biggest change in how we get power since wires began veining the landscape a century ago.
For all the engineering genius behind the electric grid, that vast network ferrying energy from power plants through transmission lines isn't particularly smart when it meets our homes. We flip a switch or plug something in and generally get as much power as we're willing to pay for.
But these days the environmental consequences and unfriendly economics of energy appear unsustainable. As a result, power providers and technology companies are making the electric grid smarter.
It will stop being merely a passive supplier of juice. Instead, power companies will be able to cue us, like those amber lights in Tsapoitis' house, to make choices about when and how we consume power. And most likely, we'll have our computers and appliances carry out those decisions for us.
Done right, the smarter grid should save consumers money in the long run by reducing the need for new power plants, which we pay off in our monthly electric bills. However, if people fail to react properly to conservation signals, their bills could spike.
And certainly a smart grid that can encourage us to conserve will feel different. Envision your kitchen appliances in silent communication with their power source: The fridge bumps its temperature up a degree on one day, and the dishwasher kicks on a bit later on another.
Smart-grid technologies have gotten small tests throughout North America, as utilities and regulators scout how to coax people to reduce their demand for power. But there's little doubt it's coming. The utility Xcel Energy Inc. plans to soon begin a $100 million smart grid project reaching 100,000 homes in Boulder, Colo.
In Milton, an exurb where dense subdivisions encroach on farm fields, a test with the Tsapoitis family and 200 other households reveals what will be possible Â— and how much more work needs to happen.
Tsapoitis uses his computer to visit an online control panel that configures his home's energy consumption. He chooses its temperature and which lights should be on or off at certain times of the day. He can set rules for different kinds of days, so the house might be warmer and darker on summer weekdays when his family is out.
The family can override those changes manually, whether it's by turning on the porch light or raising the thermostat to ward off a Canadian chill. But the system guards against waste. If midnight comes and no one has remembered to lower the thermostat and turn off the porch light, those steps just happen.