MILTON, Ontario — The glowing amber dot on a light switch in the entryway of George Tsapoitis' house offers a clue about the future of electricity.
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 — unless he's programmed his house to make that move for him.
For all the engineering genius behind the electric grid, that vast network 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 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 technology has gotten small tests throughout North America. 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 — and how much more work needs to happen.
The key hurdle is figuring out how to pay for it.
The equipment in Milton's tests costs more than $1,000 per house. That will come down with larger-scale efforts, and utilities will save money as networked meters free them from sending out human meter readers each month. But for bigger smart-grid investments, energy companies generally want regulators to let them recoup the costs through higher electric rates. That can get thorny.
Tsapoitis hopes some kind of smarter system sticks after his test ends in Milton this fall. When asked why he signed up, he said it might keep his 4-year-old son, Brogan, from worrying about environmental threats. He pointed to a tattoo down his arm that spells out Brogan's name.
"That," he said, "is what we do it for."