Chameleon cushions and hydroponic gardens: welcome to the smart home of the future

Green architecture in Camden London at day

Homes of the future will be made of recycled and green materials.
Photograph: _ultraforma_/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The concept reads like the set-design notes for a Star Trek movie: home furnishings that change colour and shape according to your mood, modular rooms that can be added to your home, and bathrooms that can track your health statistics. But the era of the smart eco-home may actually be closer than you think.

Futurologists and energy experts say that by 2030, we could be able to use existing reconfigurable materials and augmented reality to change the shape of our furniture, for example changing a brown leather sofa into a plush red velvet one, simply by commanding our in-home AI system. Smart cushions will change colour like chameleons to suit your mood. Bed covers will adapt to your body temperature for maximum snuggling.

Innovations are afoot in the kitchen, too. Hydroponic gardens are already a reality, used in a growing number of restaurants around the world and even in branches of Veggie Pret – but by 2030 we may have these at home. Hydroponics uses LED lights to grow vegetables without soil in a compact space, and to keep them fresh for longer. And smart appliances such as kettles and toasters will store energy during off-peak times, so that they are cheaper to use when you actually need them. For now, though, we have smart meters and not only are they making us more energy efficient, they are going to be a main player in reaching the UK’s 2050 emissions target.

Couple relaxing on couch in smart home

Intelligent homes will be able to adjust the temperature and lighting automatically. Photograph: Westend61/Getty Images

Meanwhile, smart bathrooms may help to improve efficiency by generating power from toilet and shower wastewater, or even filtering it to make the home water self-sufficient.

Buildings will be made from recycled materials, with improved insulation and solar panels on the rooftops and even in the windows. Modular rooms can be added as your family grows and then removed again when the kids leave home, allowing a more controlled usage of the energy supply. Sensors could track residents around the house, adjusting the temperature and lighting in each room accordingly.

At the heart of this system are smart meters. Already available at no additional cost across Britain from your energy supplier, these gadgets monitor household energy use throughout the day and report data back to network operators, which helps to predict demand and generate the supply accordingly. They also tell users when electricity rates are cheapest, for more cost-efficient use.

“A smart energy system makes it easier for us to draw on and store electricity when it’s less in demand, and then use it again when scarce or more expensive later in the day,” says Robert Cheesewright, director of corporate affairs, Smart Energy GB. “Together, smart meters and a smart energy system help to create a cleaner, greener Britain.”

There are already 15.6m smart meters installed in homes and businesses across Britain, and these devices not only make efficient energy use easy through visibility of consumption, they also display your near-real time costs in pounds and pence so that you can keep in better control of your spending.

flat roofs with solar panels

Communities could have shared electricity systems based on renewable sources such as solar panels. Photograph: peart/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Stepping further into sci-fi utopia, smart meters can help to unlock the possibility of a shared electricity system for each local community, taking advantage of shared renewable energy sources such as solar panels and wind farms, and powering things like a communal electric car pool as a convenient yet eco-friendly alternative to public transport.

Electric car ownership is likely to rise anyway, as new government legislation will soon make it compulsory for all new-build homes with a dedicated parking space to include a charging point. With the help of a smart meter and a smart charger, cars will charge during off-peak hours, reducing the cost of fuel to as little as 3p per mile – compared with 11p for petrol and diesel cars.

“There might even be instances where you could get paid to charge your car when the power system needs us to use more power,” said futurologist Dr Ian Pearson, during a panel discussion hosted by Smart Energy GB.

With fossil fuels, it is easy for the energy companies to control the supply – when more power is needed, they just burn more coal. But renewable energy does not work this way: sun and wind power dictate their own routines.

Side view of boy looking while charging electric car

As electric car ownership increases, smart systems will predict demand for charging.

Photograph: Maskot/Getty Images

Smart meters help to bridge this gap. They allow network operators to accurately predict demand, so renewables can be used with less waste – ie the right amount of energy can be distributed to the right place at the right time, reducing that lost in the current distribution system. Consultancy firm Smarter Business says renewable sources account for only one-third of our energy mix today, but government reports predict that 70% of our energy will come from low-carbon sources and renewables by 2030.

The best part is, you won’t even have to think about it. Once the system is set up, the smart meter, alongside your smart appliances, chargers and services will do all the work, managing your supply automatically according to your preferences. And the addition of batteries will make it possible to store power in the home.

A Cardiff University project has fitted seven social housing homes with batteries that can store energy from solar panels or the power system. Solar power that is not used right away charges the battery, which creates enough energy to power home appliances throughout the evening. The cost savings are remarkable – project lead Dr Jo Patterson says that “between March to October when the days are longer and the PV panels [solar photovoltaic panels] can generate lots of energy, the occupants of these homes are paying around one pound a month for their electricity”.

Saving energy, saving money, saving the environment. Smart eco-homes (and the smart meters that enable them) will become an integral part of a greener Britain – and the future could be with us in less than a decade.

Part of Britain’s commitment to creating a more sustainable, low-carbon future includes making our energy network “smarter” – implementing digital tech to make our energy system more responsive to increased demand and variable wind speed. By collecting data on our energy use through smart meters, our network can better understand, plan for and balance out peaks and troughs in demand, making it easier to integrate renewable energy sources.

This article was paid for by Smart Energy GB, a government-backed organisation tasked with informing Great Britain about the smart meter rollout.


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