Navigant Research Blog

New Study of EcoFactor Home Energy Management Offering Sparks Responses

— September 16, 2014

Cloud-based home energy management (HEM) startup EcoFactor is touting data from a new independent study showing that its system delivers significant energy savings for residential customers enrolled in Nevada utility NV Energy’s mPowered program.  The analysis, conducted by ADM, found that in the summer of 2013, homes with EcoFactor-connected thermostats reduced electricity consumption by an average of 94.68 kWh per month, or 5.5%.

The study also showed that EcoFactor reduced peak load by 2.7 kW per thermostat, more than twice the load shed claimed by Google’s Nest Labs (1.18 kW per device) and 90 times the load shed Opower estimates it can achieve through its behavioral approach (0.044 kW).

It’s important to note that NV Energy’s mPowered program, which at that time had 14,500 participating customers, was (and still is) all EcoFactor – with no other competitors involved.  So there is no head-to-head comparison with Nest devices, for instance, nor with Opower’s approach.

The closest comparison between EcoFactor and a competitor involved a Carrier two-way communicating thermostat for residential customers.  In terms of per-device hourly reduction, EcoFactor’s thermostats came out on top, with a peak reduction of 2.37 kW.  Carrier devices followed closely, at 2.33 kW.

EcoFactor’s approach is not limited to demand response (DR) events and electricity.  By persistently working in the background (similar to Nest), it can also help a homeowner reduce natural gas consumption via the thermostat, as the study points out.  The study’s authors calculated the expected natural gas savings from EcoFactor’s platform during months in Las Vegas when space heating would occur and found that they would amount to 18 therms per year.  When combined with the cooling reductions, about 635 kWh, the expected annual savings for an EcoFactor home was about $98.

The Competition Reacts

In a blog post, Yoky Matsuoka, Nest Labs’ vice president of technology, responded, “If we take a look at the hottest days in Austin, Texas (where we did a study of Nest homes last year) and compare them to similarly hot days for EcoFactor customers in Nevada, Nest customers and EcoFactor customers both reduced their peak energy use by about 1.3 kW of energy.”  This competition is healthy for the HEM sector.

It’s also helpful to contrast the EcoFactor-mPowered results with what Oklahoma Gas and Electric (OG&E) has reported from a similar smart thermostat-DR program called SmartHours.  Using Energate thermostats and the Silver Spring Networks software platform, the average participating OG&E customer saved about $191, or approximately 15%, off an annual bill in 2012.  That program has not undergone an independent study like NV Energy’s, but it shows that results can vary.

What this independent study of NV Energy’s programs shows is the need for common standards on which to evaluate HEM programs and devices, something we’ve pointed out in Navigant Research’s reports, Home Energy Management and Smart Thermostats.  Standardizing the measurement process across more utilities will help eliminate some of the confusion around the data and give key stakeholders – utilities, HEM vendors, and residential customers – more insight into what really lowers energy consumption and costs.

Lauren Callaway co-authored this blog.

 

The Race to Control the Smart Home Heats Up

— September 3, 2014

The race to control the smart home is heating up.  Four tech giants have made strategic moves that portend a lengthy fight – one in which consumers should come out ahead, eventually, and more energy efficient homes should result.

The four big players – Microsoft, Samsung, Apple, and Google – are each taking different approaches and are at different stages of development.  Their recent tactical moves include:

  • Microsoft is acting as an incubator.  The software giant (along with partner American Family Insurance) has set up an accelerator program to encourage tech startups to create smarter homes.  In the current round, 10 companies have been chosen, two with a clear focus on energy efficiency.  Chai Energy aims to give consumers real-time energy consumption data for the whole house and for individual appliances.  Heatworks offers what it calls “the first digital tankless water heater” to conserve energy and reduce water consumption.
  • Samsung is making acquisitions.  In August, the gadget and appliance maker announced its purchase of SmartThings, a startup offering a hardware-software solution that connects many in-home devices, such as light switches, outlets, locks, and thermostats.  Also in August, Samsung bought Quietside, a U.S.-based distributor of heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) products, and the South Korean conglomerate says it will release an enhanced lineup of HVAC products that better addresses North American customers’ needs.
  • Apple is featuring HomeKit as part of iOS 8.  The mobile operating system will include HomeKit, a new software framework, when it is released this fall; the new software will enable users to connect iOS and third-party devices in the home in order to control lights, door locks, and thermostats, among other devices, from mobile devices.
  • Google’s Nest Labs is opening its platform. The company’s software is now available to outside developers that can write applications that connect devices to Nest thermostats and smoke detectors.  The company also acquired Dropcam, a startup that offers video monitoring equipment for the home.

No Quarter

This competition for smart home supremacy will continue for a number of years.  Why?  Because home energy management remains a fragmented world, with no single standard or platform.  No clear leader has emerged, and interoperability will be an issue.  Furthermore, none of these companies want to concede ground to the other if they don’t have to.  From an energy-savings standpoint, Google’s Nest Labs has momentum.  But don’t count out the others in terms of volume and the ability to drive adoption, particularly Apple and Samsung; both can leverage large installed bases of mobile device users, and Samsung has the advantage of already selling connected appliances.  The race has just gotten started.

 

New Approaches Boost Energy Efficiency

— August 7, 2014

National Grid’s U.S. division has rolled out a home energy management (HEM) pilot in Massachusetts that combines free hardware and special applications in a bid to get customers to cut their electricity use and help the utility manage demand more efficiently.  The pilot is targeted at customers in Worcester, which, for the past few years, has been the focal point of National Grid’s testing of smart grid technologies, including new Itron smart meters and other infrastructure upgrades.

About 15,000 customers are eligible to take part in the pilot.  They can choose from several free bundles of technology.  One of the more novel devices is a digital picture frame made by Ceiva that receives electricity consumption data from a smart meter and makes suggestions for reducing use.  Smart thermostats from Carrier and smart electrical plugs from Safeplug are also available.  Ceiva’s software, called Homeview, enables customers to view consumption data online and on mobile devices.  For the utility, Ceiva’s Entryway software suite supports the management of smart meter-connected home area networks, residential demand response (DR) capabilities, and energy efficiency programs.  The pilot is scheduled to last about 2 years at a cost of $44 million.

Cheers All Around

A number of utilities are deploying similar technology to help customers reduce energy consumption.  Glendale Water & Power and San Diego Gas & Electric support Ceiva devices as part of their efforts to encourage customers to use electricity more efficiently.  In addition, utilities like NV Energy, using EcoFactor technology, and Oklahoma Gas & Electric, which has deployed thermostats from Energate and software from Silver Spring Networks, have taken the lead on HEM programs for several years (for a deeper dive into the HEM space, see Navigant Research’s report, Home Energy Management).

Utilities like National Grid and the others mentioned here are to be commended for providing a range of technologies that help customers reduce consumption while also helping utilities meet efficiency targets.  That’s what a smarter grid is intended to do, and more utilities should do the same.

 

Behavioral Programs Yield Savings for Customers

— August 5, 2014

A new study of four rural cooperative utilities in Minnesota demonstrates that behavioral programs based on smart meter data can help customers become more efficient electricity users.  And while the results were encouraging, the savings were not overly dramatic, falling within the range of expected outcomes based on other similar programs.

Among the four Minnesota utilities, the average annual residential electricity savings ranged from 1.8% to 2.8% for customers who opted in to the MyMeter program, a web-based system that users can access to manage consumption.  The four cooperatives involved in the programs were Beltrami Electric Cooperative, Lake Region Electric Cooperative, Stearns Electric Association, and Wright-Hennepin Cooperative Electric Association.  The total number of households was more than 14,000.

MyMeter is a software solution provided by startup Accelerated Innovations that features four key offerings for customers who opt in: help with load management and efficiency, visualization of energy use, improved billing options, and a communications platform.

Consistent Findings

The study compared the four Minnesota cooperatives’ results with two utilities in Massachusetts that had gone through an evaluation of similar efficiency programs.  Results from Western Massachusetts Electric’s program showed average savings of 1.9%, while savings among customers taking part in Cape Light Compact’s program averaged 1.5%.  Though these results were somewhat lower than the Minnesota figures, the study authors viewed them as within the range of expected savings.

Although they weren’t part of this study, it is useful to note results from Opower, another behavioral-based vendor that helps utilities’ customers lower their energy consumption.  Opower says its behavioral programs can reduce energy consumption by 1.5% to 2.5%, on average – close to what the cooperatives achieved.

One benefit of the program for the four Minnesota cooperatives is that the state’s department of commerce has accepted the results and will allow the four to count the savings toward a state-mandated goal, which calls for energy savings of 1.5% of annual retail energy sales for each utility.

The programs used by the four Minnesota cooperatives are a clear example of what can be done when utilities leverage smart meter data by giving customers access to the information and the tools they need to reduce consumption.  Other utilities that have deployed smart meters should take note.  Behavioral programs can help achieve two goals: meeting regulatory mandates for overall energy reduction and satisfying customers who want new ways to manage their energy budgets.

 

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