Navigant Research Blog

Technology Issues in Smart Devices Can Cause Major Problems for Consumers

— January 29, 2016

close up of man hands touching tablet pc screenOver the past few years, there has been an explosion of devices that have the potential to revolutionize our daily lives. Smart devices promise to help us piece together a smart home, manage our energy consumption, and track our health and fitness at the push of a button. My 82 year-old grandmother has an iPad Air, which she uses every day to play games that keep her mind sharp, browse movies online that she can send to her entertainment console, and track her vitamin and medication intake. She once casually commented, “I don’t know what I would do without my iPad now.”

While embracing smart devices can lead to a bright future of connectivity and convenience, the technology may not be developed enough for us to so readily welcome them into our homes. Lately, there have been several cases showing that these so-called smart devices sometimes have serious flaws.

Out in the Cold

For example, the Nest Learning Thermostat—a smart thermostat that can be monitored and adjusted via a smartphone app—recently experienced a software glitch that left many of its customers in the cold. This may seem like a somewhat trivial issue—unless you are elderly, have an infant, or fear your pipes may burst. Nest reported that the issue had been fixed for 99.5% of customers, yet the fix involves a complicated nine-step manual restart (to Nest’s credit, it does offer to send an electrician to your home for assistance), and 0.5% of customers still did not have a solution.

Though Nest is arguably one of the best smart thermostats on the market, its technology issues don’t stop there. In January 2016, it was reported that Nest Learning Thermostats were leaking ZIP codes over Wi-Fi, meaning that any person walking or driving by with the right equipment could intercept that information. While leaked ZIP codes are probably not the most serious security concern, it does lead back to one of the main issues around smart devices today: are these devices secure, and can consumers trust them?

Nest is not the only company experiencing technology issues. Researchers who discovered the Nest ZIP code leaks also found the Sharx security camera and the PixStar photo frame were sending unencrypted data that could potentially be intercepted. The Honeywell Lyric, a rival smart thermostat to the Nest product, was reviewed as having glitches in its flagship geofencing feature. In April 2015, Nick Bilton—the New York Times writer who covered the Nest glitch—also reported on the security flaws he had experienced with the wireless fob for his Prius. Finally, the Fitbit, a fitness/health-focused wearable, was recently hit with a class-action lawsuit over its supposedly inaccurate heart rate monitoring.

A Growing Market

Pointing out these technology issues is not meant to scare consumers away from buying a smart thermostat, a keyless car, wearables, or any other popular smart device. These devices will inevitably become a part of our lives. Navigant Research estimates that the global market for communicating and smart thermostats (and their respective software and services) alone will reach $2.3 billion by 2023. The point is that it is our responsibility as consumers to not only understand and be aware of the risks associated with connected smart devices, but also to demand that these devices be safe and secure if we are going to embrace them.


The Upside of Efficiency Standards

— January 29, 2016

Network switch and UTP ethernet cablesAppliance efficiency standards generate little excitement for most of us. We expect appliances to operate efficiently, and we expect the latest versions we purchase to take advantage of the newest and most efficient technologies. But we don’t give it much thought beyond that.

It’s not that simple, of course. In the United States, there is a standardization process involving U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) officials, appliance manufacturers, utilities, distributors, efficiency advocates, and contractors. The latest milestone in that process comes courtesy of the Appliance Standards and Rulemaking Federal Advisory Committee (ASRAC), which recently approved a set of recommended standards for residential central air conditioning (AC) and heat pump efficiency levels.

Some key parts of the latest standards approved by ASRAC and developed by a DOE-sponsored working group include:

  • Effective January 1, 2023, standards are to achieve at least 7% savings—changes to the test method and equipment rating need to increase savings beyond the nominal change in Seasonal Energy Efficiency Ratio value.
  • Expected savings of about 300 million kWh over 30 years of sales, which is approximately as much power as is used by 27 million households in a year.
  • Based on current electricity prices, the value of these savings is expected to total about $38 billion in utility bill savings.

It should be noted that some 60% of U.S. homes have a central cooling system, and approximately 19% of these systems are heat pumps. In addition, nearly all new homes are built with central AC.

Some Background

These latest standards have a legacy dating back to 2006, when major improvements in AC and heat pump efficiency took effect, and also from a set of consensus standards from 2011, which took effect last year. According to experts, these combined three rounds of improved standards—those effective in 2006 and 2015 and the upcoming set in 2023—are expected to raise central AC and heat pump efficiency by some 50% in less than 20 years.

Standards may be somewhat dull, and some stakeholders may think the latest ones don’t go far enough. But standards like those mentioned above can have a lasting and broad beneficial effect when it comes to greater efficiency and reducing pollution. The next time the AC or heat pump kicks on, you can thank the organizations responsible for taking the long view in setting and maintaining standards that benefit us all.


NFL Could Score Higher with Increased Energy Efficiency

— January 29, 2016

light bulbs2014 marked an important year for energy efficiency in the NFL. Super Bowl XLVIII, hosted by the University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona, was the first Super Bowl to be lit by LED lighting. The stadium retrofitted 312 LED light fixtures, which replaced more than 780 metal halide high intensity discharge (HID) fixtures.

On February 7, the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos will face off in Super Bowl 50 at Levi’s Stadium in San Francisco. The stadium opened in August 2014 and was the first stadium to achieve LEED Gold certification at opening. Levi’s Stadium uses 85% recycled water, an industry first, as well as 20,000 SF of solar panels. The Stadium also uses 40% LED lighting for general lighting needs, but installed metal halide lamps illuminate the stadium itself. While Levi’s does not use LED lighting for on field illumination, Super Bowl 50 is estimated to be the more environmentally friendly to date. In partnership with Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), much of the energy needed to power Super Bowl-related events and activities will be generated from renewable energy. Where renewable power is not practical, renewable energy credits will be used. The Super Bowl committee has also worked with the city to promote public transportation and will utilize carsharing programs. Water filling stations provided by FloWater and US Pure Water will be used, as no single-use plastic will be available. After the game, there will efforts to distribute unused food to food banks and donate building material, décor, signs, and more to local organizations.

What other stadiums have seen the (LED) light?

Many stadiums were slow to adopt LED lights due to the higher costs. By 2014, however, the additional costs for LEDs were minimized because of the technology’s increased life span and reduced maintenance. Since then, many stadiums have started transitioning to LED lighting. In addition to the University of Phoenix Stadium, the NRG Stadium, home to the Houston Texans, also installed LEDs in 2014. In January 2015, Ephesus Lighting, Inc., the company responsible for the LED lights in Arizona, announced it will be providing LEDs for the U.S. Bank Stadium set to open in 2016. The stadium, home to the Minnesota Vikings, is expected to cut electricity use by 75% by utilizing LEDs.

Beyond LED lighting, NFL stadiums have taken alternative steps to curb energy consumption. Lincoln Financial Field in Philadelphia has a solar array with more than 11,000 panels as well as 14 micro wind-turbines. Combined, these systems generate four times the amount of energy consumed during all home games. The Seattle Seahawks’ CenturyLink Field has 1,350 solar panels on the ring of the stadium and replaced its striking light display with LED bulbs. These improvements save the stadium roughly 21% of its utility costs annually. MetLife Stadium, which opened in 2010 and is home to the New York Giants and Jets, has reduced energy consumption by 30%. The stadium utilizes an automated lighting control system and energy efficient window coatings to reduce heat. Gillette Stadium, home to last year’s Super Bowl Champions, the New England Patriots, has both solar panels and wind turbines. The 3,000-panel solar canopy generates 60% of the energy used in the Patriot Place shopping center that sits adjacent to the stadium.

What’s Next?

While many NFL stadiums have installed LED lighting or employed other energy efficient measures, there is still room for improvement. The NFL’s revenue for the 2014-2015 season was $12 billion. Initial costs should not be a limiting factor for NFL teams in retrofitting their stadiums. The NFL has had its share of bad publicity lately, including domestic violence, drugs, and cheating. Why not change the public’s perception of such an influential sports league by implementing a requirement and allocating funds to stadiums to increase energy efficacy?


New York County to Show the Way on Community Choice Microgrids

— January 29, 2016

GeneratorI tried to help develop a microgrid in the small rural community of Point Reyes Station back in 2008. I was an independent writer and community organizer at the time, and Marin County was set to launch California’s first community choice aggregation (CCA) program, which empowered local governments to contract for power supplies while the incumbent investor-owned utility still maintained the poles and wires as well as billing.

Due to some last-minute hang-ups, the project—which would have incorporated existing solar, wind, and biogas power generation—was not funded. A study I conducted also concluded that the CCA market structure alone could not support a full microgrid implementation since it did not have the authority to manage the power grid itself, enabling safe islanding and requiring an interconnection agreement. As I reported in the San Francisco Chronicle, a small solar PV and battery nanogrid was installed at the site—a community center—but it was quite primitive and not rolled into the CCA, which now goes by the moniker of Marin Clean Energy.

Back to the Present

Flash forward to 2016. Westchester County in New York is moving forward with a unique CCA program that breaks new ground on several fronts, including an attempt to create a community-based energy program incorporating several features beyond the typical CCA menu of wholesale power purchases and local distributed generation (DG):

  • The CCA is moving forward without state legislation specifically authorizing such local government power purchasing. Legislation authorizing just Westchester County to move forward with a CCA was vetoed, but then the New York Public Service Commission authorized the CCA as a pilot program.
  • Because of this unique approach, Sustainable Westchester, Inc., which counts Joule Assets among its behind-the-scene prime movers, has had to work to pass local legislation in each municipality to enlist local government participants.
  • The CCA will not only look to new DG models such as community solar, but also a novel community-based behavioral demand response (DR) program leveraging tight social networks that already exist in the region.
  • Westchester County also boasted more microgrid proposals (14) responding to the New York Prize competition than any other county in the state, involving companies as diverse as Booz Allen Hamilton, Siemens, Power Analytics, Green Energy Corporation, Hitachi, NRG Energy, and others.

If we zero in on microgrids, there may be some hope for a tighter linkage between a CCA and microgrids, thanks to Westchester County. For one, New York is a “home rule” state, which means local governments—some of which date back to the 17th century—have more clout and legal authority than in other states. (Though California is also a home rule state, the concept is much more entrenched culturally in New York.) For two, New York’s Reforming the Energy Vision process is opening up new business models that align with both DR and microgrids. For three, Westchester County is situated in a major congestion zone, since it sits between the giant loads of the Big Apple and wholesale power supplies located in upstate New York. The integration of both more aggregated DG and DR make inherent sense from a systems planning perspective.

First Steps

“Our vision is for Sustainable Westchester to become a municipal service aggregator entity for a wide range of DER [distributed energy resources] services, including microgrids,” said Glenn Weinberg, director of smart community choice programs for Joule Assets. “We see the need for a centralized entity to manage these microgrids on a regional basis, as many may require services whose procurement could benefit from economies of scale.” The first important step for the CCA is a Request For Proposals for power suppliers, which the program has just released.


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