Navigant Research Blog

Drought-Plagued California Looks to Smart Water System

— February 4, 2014

In drought-stricken California, an effective approach for helping people curb their energy consumption has shown similar results in helping them reduce their use of water.  It could also be a forerunner of similar programs in other regions that suffer from chronic water scarcity.

The 1-year pilot was conducted among residents living within East Bay Municipal Utility District’s (EBMUD’s) service territory, which includes Oakland and its surrounding suburbs.  Results from an independent study showed that when participants received information comparing their water consumption to neighborhood averages, usage decreased by 5% on average.

The pilot employed a “behavioral water efficiency” approach that has been used by numerous U.S. electric utilities to encourage customers to reduce consumption.  Opower, for example, uses this behavioral-based approach for energy utilities.  In EBMUD’s case, the technology provider was WaterSmart Software, which applies analytics and behavioral science tools to crunch data and provide consumers with feedback information and tips for cutting consumption.

Perma-Drought

The 10,000 EBMUD residential customers involved in the pilot received easy-to-comprehend water use reports for their home and compared consumption to similar-sized homes in the nearby area.  There was a control group set up to make sure other factors, like weather or other customer behavior, did not affect the estimated water savings.  It should be noted that the East Bay pilot was the first large-scale implementation of this type of technology by an urban water utility.

The pilot was partially funded by the California Water Foundation, which concluded that this type of behavior-based water use report, if implemented by other water utilities in California, could help meet state requirements to shrink per-capita water use by 20% by 2020.  And with Governor Jerry Brown’s recent declaration of a state of emergency due to drought, wider implementation of this reporting approach could spread rather quickly.

The East Bay study shows that saving water by providing more granular, timely, and actionable consumption data is an approach that can work.  This solution is bound to be used elsewhere in the United States, especially the Southwest and other regions where drought is an ongoing threat.  In a larger context, the pilot strengthens the case for using data analytics to help drive greater efficiency in water systems, as noted in a previous blog and in Navigant Research’s report, Smart Water Networks.  This is not to say upgraded hardware such as smart water meters and leak detecting sensor aren’t helpful, too.  The best practice will be to integrate both big data and smarter equipment to bring greater efficiencies to water systems.

 

With Nest Buy, Google Reaches Deeper into Homes

— January 14, 2014

Google’s $3.2 billion acquisition of Nest Labs, maker of smart thermostats and smoke alarms (which I’ve written about previously), is an obvious move by the search giant to reach further into the home with Internet-connected gadgets that tie users to Google services beyond search and other online activities.  It is an Internet of Things (IoT) play, with safety (smoke alarm-carbon monoxide detector) and home energy management (thermostat) as the starting points.  (For a deeper dive into this market, see Navigant Research’s report, Home Energy Management).  And while this deal seems like a great match, there are risks and issues that need to be resolved.

The positives for both companies are clear.  The big cash infusion should give Nest the needed money to pay for expanded marketing efforts, move strategically into new markets outside North America, and hire talented engineers to continue developing disruptive products.  For Google, the company gets a big win on product design.  Nest devices have great design features, which are a testament to the capabilities of founders Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers, both of whom worked at Apple before starting Nest (and who will presumably become quite wealthy thanks to the deal with Google).  Nest has quickly established itself as the standard among connected thermostats, with distribution online, among retailers, and through some utilities.

Price and Privacy

One of the issues with Nest devices, however, is price, especially among mainstream consumers.  The Nest thermostat sells for $249, much more than typical thermostats, and the Protect smoke alarm retails for $129, again higher than prevailing products.  The Nest devices offer more than standard products, but getting past early adopters on price will now become a Google challenge.

Beyond price, installations don’t always go smoothly, and can require the buyer to hire a professional installer, which can add $200 or more to the purchase cost.  Also, a Nest thermostat software update in December 2013 caused some of the devices to go dark when it mattered most, as temperatures plummeted in the Northeast (as noted by my friend and former PC Magazine editor-in-chief Michael Miller).

There are also concerns about how Google will handle the user data supplied via Nest devices.  On January 9, France’s data protection watchdog, known as CNIL,  fined Google the maximum €150,000 ($205,000) for ignoring a three-month requirement to comply with local law regarding the tracking and storing of user information.  Similarly, Google’s previous foray into home energy management did not go so well.  The Google PowerMeter project, a free energy-monitoring tool, shut down in September 2011.  Nest brings real traction to Google in the HEM space, but could increase consumers’ wariness over privacy concerns.

I spoke with Matt Rogers last week while at CES, and he was clearly excited about Nest’s future.  Now, it’s clear why: He knew that future funding was not going to be a problem.  It helps to be acquired by the world’s second most valuable brand, but Google-Nest still faces some serious challenges, which rivals like Honeywell, among others, will be looking to exploit.

 

In-Home Energy Displays: Not Dead Yet

— January 3, 2014

The in-home energy display (IHD) market is still relevant, even though many people wrote off this device category a couple of years ago.  Several vendors and utilities report that residential customers are using the devices to help reduce energy consumption and lower bills (for more details on this market, see Navigant Research’s Home Energy Management report published in 4Q 2013). California’s Glendale Water & Power (GWP) provides one example of some traction for IHDs that connect to smart meters.  The utility and its IHD supplier, Ceiva Energy, recently released a new survey showing that customers involved in a pilot who received a Ceiva Homeview frame enhanced their understanding of energy use and did some experimenting:

  • Awareness of hourly electricity costs increased 19 percentage points, from 4% before the device was installed to 23% after
  • Awareness about the time of day they used the most electricity nearly doubled, from 18% to 35%
  • 83% experimented with their consumption, either turning lights on or off, or turning appliances on or off

Since GWP also supplies water to customers, the survey asked about changes in water consumption after the Homeview frame was installed, with 48% of respondents saying they took action, either adjusting their lawn watering schedule or reducing water usage in the home.  Ceiva’s device is also part of another pilot at National Grid in Worcester, Massachusetts, though results of that trial are not yet available.

Right Time & Place

San Diego Gas & Electric, meanwhile, has tested and approved not only Ceiva’s device but also ones from vendors such as Aztech Associates and Rainforest Automation.  Also, northern California utility giant Pacific Gas & Electric has tested IHDs and approved models built by Aztech Associates and Energy Aware.  These IHDs enable homeowners to set up energy-focused home area networks (HANs) and wirelessly connect to smart meters in order to view power consumption in near real-time.  Armed with this data, they can make more informed choices and use energy more efficiently. Outside of the United States, IHDs have also made some inroads.  In Ontario, Canada, a free provincewide program called peaksaver PLUS includes an IHD for customers who enroll; now in its second year, the program provides average savings on bills of about 9%.  One of the key drivers of adoption is the fact that the province is now on time-of-use (TOU) rates, which encourage people to use less energy when electricity rates are high.  So far, some 140,000 homes have displays supplied by Blue Line Innovations, among other providers.   Additionally, Hydro One, a utility serving rural areas of Ontario, has a pilot program to install IHDs from Ambient Devices; results of that trial are still pending.

The Smartphone Factor

In the United Kingdom, millions of IHDs are expected to be installed in the coming years as part of the government’s mandated smart meter deployment.  An IHD is to be made available to every home and small business (some 30 million in all) that receives a new smart electric and gas meter over the next 7 years. As one IHD manufacturer told me recently, IHDs are not dead as a product category, though they have struggled to gain wider attention in a market where app-enabled smartphones and tablets have come to lead.  Therein lies the challenge: despite these concrete examples, overall adoption of IHDs remains low, in the single-digit percentages of utility customers or lower.  Many of these devices work well at communicating consumption, and customers find them useful.  But the trend is toward providing consumption data to the mobile devices that consumers already own and use, which is more convenient for most people.  The BYOD (bring your own device) movement makes it difficult to see a rapidly growing market for IHDs in coming years – outside mandated situations like the United Kingdom or Ontario.

 

New Discoveries Change Notions of Fresh Water

— December 30, 2013

Two new water discoveries have the potential to significantly alter our understanding and future use of this increasingly scarce resource.  One involves semi-fresh water located under the ocean, and the other is a find below the frozen surface of Greenland.

First, scientists have determined that an estimated half million cubic kilometers of low-salinity water (low enough to be turned into potable water) are trapped beneath the seabed on continental shelves around the world, according to a new study published in the international scientific journal Nature.   The amount of potentially useful water is staggering: a hundred times greater than the amount extracted from the earth’s sub-surface since 1900, according to Dr. Vincent Post, the study’s lead author and a professor in the School of the Environment at Flinders University, which oversees Australia’s National Centre for Groundwater Research and Training (NCGRT).

This offshore groundwater has been found off Australia, North America, South Africa, and China.  It could be utilized to supplement existing water sources for coastal cities and surrounding areas, and could potentially sustain some regions for decades. There are two methods of extracting this water, according to Dr. Post:  build an offshore drilling platform and pipe the water to shore, or drill from the mainland or from islands near the aquifers.  Previously, scientists thought this water only existed under rare and special conditions.

Under the Ice

The second discovery was made in Greenland, where researchers drilling through an ice core found something very surprising about 30 feet down: a giant aquifer estimated to be 27,000 square miles, larger than the state of West Virginia.  Details of the discovery were published recently in Nature Geoscience.

The Greenland aquifer is not considered as a water source for human activity; however, the environmental significance of this finding could be very important.  Scientists theorize the aquifer connects to a network of crevasses and streams that flow to ice sheets and helps lubricate the flowing glaciers.  They also suspect that the aquifer acts like a giant storage area, which could burst at some point, sending a large volume of water out of the ice sheet.  It may be a little of both phenomena taking place, according to Richard Forster, a glaciologist at the University of Utah whose students were among those drilling the core.  Forster has applied for more research funding to study the huge aquifer and how it might affect future ocean levels.  Given the amount of water – perhaps more than 100 billion tons – it could be enough to raise global sea levels by 0.4 millimeters, if it all flowed into the sea at once.  The melting of Greenland’s ice sheet adds about 0.7 millimeters of sea-level rise each year, under current conditions, so a 0.4 millimeter increase would be significant.

Uncharted Seas

These revelations come on the heels of the earlier discovery this year of aquifers in Africa, where large underground reservoirs could help ease drought conditions in North Kenya, as noted in a previous blog.

At this point the implications of these two latest discoveries are not fully known, and neither offers a panacea for the many issues surrounding water.  One could be a big boost for coastal areas in need of additional water sources, and the other could help deepen our understanding of fluctuating ocean levels.  Both are worthy of further study to determine what course of action, if any, makes sense.  Clearly, the aquifers under the sea could pay dividends by helping to reduce the effects of drought or water shortages on land.  But it will require careful drilling techniques and, among other things, the application of smart distribution technologies (some of which are described in Navigant Research’s report, Smart Water Networks).  As Dr. Post warns, “These water reserves [under the sea] are non-renewable,” and “we should use them carefully – once gone, they won’t be replenished until the sea level drops again, which is not likely to happen for a very long time.”

 

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