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Refrigerators may help keep the lights on

A major transmission line gets knocked down during a violent storm. The region's electrical grid becomes unstable. Without even noticing, your refrigerator turns off momentarily. Thousands of appliances around the region do the same. Success! A major blackout is avoided.

Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory have developed a prototype of a device that may become the heart of grid-friendly appliances that can respond to critical conditions of the electrical system.

It may not be much to look at yet, but the almond-colored box about the size of a laptop computer can sense critical conditions on the grid at the receptacle and control refrigerators, water heaters, air-conditioners and other home appliances to avoid power outages.

"The idea is to have devices like this control appliances, but to do it with very little or no noticeable effect on the appliance use," said Michael Kintner-Meyer, who helped develop the prototype. "By turning things off for a few seconds, the system has time to stabilize. It is the least inconvenient way to reduce loads."

In the future, appliances may have built-in grid-friendly controls which operate much like the Laboratory's prototype. Kintner-Meyer said energy service providers might provide incentives for consumers to buy the grid-friendly appliances because they would help keep the system stable.

"This is just the beginning," Kintner-Meyer said. "In addition to keeping the lights on, one day smarter appliances also could adjust how and when they operate based on the cost of electricity, helping consumers save money."

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