The Problem: In 1993, lighting specialist Greg Wiegand was working on the set of a Crest toothpaste commercial. That's where the trouble began. The dimmer used to control the lighting hummed so loudly that he had to run cables and move his kit off the set. Annoyed, Wiegand set out to find a fix and discovered that his problem was similar to one that afflicts every household in the United States: voltage control. When Wiegand turned up his dimmer, excess voltage flowing into the light kit generated a loud hum.
The same problem exists, less noticeably, in your home. Utilities are required to deliver power to households at somewhere between 114 and 126 volts (V), the standard operating range for home appliances. But because higher voltages are needed to push electricity over long distances, the actual voltage entering your house varies according to the distance between your home and the nearest substation. As a result, 90 percent of houses receive more voltage than they require. When anything more than 114V gets fed into an appliance, the excess is wasted as heat, increasing wear and tear on the device. Engineers have known for decades that they could save all this wasted energy by delivering electricity to homes at the minimum 114V, but there was no simple way for them to do so without the houses farthest from a utility's substation receiving too little voltage.
The Solution: Wiegand finally figured out how to silence his light kit with a clever metal device about the size of a phone book. And he eventually realized his little invention could be applied to the entire residential power grid. His Home Voltage Regulator, which attaches to the electric meter found on every house, is essentially a small transformer controlled by a computer motherboard. The motherboard measures the voltage coming into the meter, then directs the transformer to step it down to the minimum 114V. It then returns any excess power back to the grid to get passed along to the next house.
Wiegand quit showbiz and founded MicroPlanet, based in Edmonds, Washington, to promote his device and capture the large, lucrative home market. The company estimates that its devices could reduce household energy usage by as much as 20 percent by eliminating wasted voltage. Install them in a million homes nationwide and you could reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power plants by 640,000 tons a year. The nonprofit Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance plans to install 500 of the boxes in homes this spring, and MicroPlanet says a public utility commission in the Northeast is planning a 1,000-unit pilot program this summer. Eventually, Wiegand hopes his device will become the standard for all U.S. households.