updated 12/21/2005 9:48:39 PM ET 2005-12-22T02:48:39

Some Oregon and Washington residents are getting free dryers as part of a test of smart, power-saving appliances.

The idea is to have appliances sense stresses in the nation's power supply — caused by such things as a tree falling on a major electrical line or a power plant unexpectedly going offline.

The appliances could automatically reduce their power usage to help stabilize the system.

"It's not about saving power overall, but saving power when you most need it — at times of high pressure on the power grid," said Robert Pratt, a staff scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

The dryer, for instance, could turn off its heating unit for a few minutes to momentarily conserve power, while still tumbling your clothes to avoid wrinkles.

There's also talk of a refrigerator smart enough to know when — and when not — to defrost the freezer.

"We want to show there are no hiccups with the technology," Pratt said. "But we're also trying to show that nobody notices if the heating element on their dryer is shut off for 5 minutes."

Researchers are conducting a pilot using a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Energy Department. They contend enough gadgets like these in public use could help to avert blackouts like the one that darkened the Northeast in 2003.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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