Navigant Research Blog

Speed Bumps on the Road to the Smarter Home

— August 20, 2015

While more smart home technology keeps rolling out from manufacturers, some of the targeted customers are finding the systems do not always satisfy their expectations or have shortcomings. This was pointed out recently in a Wall Street Journal piece that noted the downsides of the latest systems that control lighting, door locks, and thermostats, among other things.

Not Worth the Trouble?

One of those people is a professor of mechanical engineering who is also head of the Berkeley Energy and Climate Institute at UC Berkeley. He received a smart thermostat as a gift, but has yet to install it because it wasn’t worth the trouble, according to the story. Another is a tech-savvy contractor who finds his smart home control system is too complicated, particularly when things go wrong. He now tells his own clients to avoid automated systems.

These are anecdotal examples, to be sure, and may not reflect the experiences of satisfied smart home technology customers. But these stories do highlight some of the barriers to smart home technology adoption and the related Internet of Things (IoT) trend, which has gripped many in the high-tech, home automation, and energy sectors. These barriers (as noted in Navigant Research’s IoT for Residential Customers report) include complexity, pricing, and data security.

Moreover, a Bluetooth Special Interest Group survey released earlier this year underscored what consumers consider as key factors in deciding what to purchase. More than half of the survey respondents (54%) said smart home solutions need to be straightforward to use and 41% said they should be easy to set up; 4 in 10 of the respondents (42%) said offering products at competitive prices is important; and an equal number (42%) said keeping their data secure is essential.

Too Complex

While conducting research into IoT trends, many of the vendors and stakeholders I spoke with mentioned complexity as a barrier for smart home tech adoption. It is an age old problem: How to solve thorny problems, like increasing energy efficiency in a home, with improved products that don’t require the consumer to do too much? In other words, bring the benefits but hide the complexity.

Some manufacturers have done this. And despite the professor mentioned above who has yet to bother with his, smart thermostats from Nest, Honeywell, and ecobee (to name just a few) can boost efficiency without sacrificing comfort and without too difficult a setup. They aren’t perfect answers, of course, and tend to be more expensive than common offerings. But other hardware and solutions providers should take note: It is possible to conceal the complexity behind smart home devices. And it should be a top priority in designing solutions, especially when even geeks among us are reluctant to engage.


ComEd and S&C Electric Push Utility Distribution Microgrids in Chicago

— August 17, 2015

The market for microgrids is evolving, with many utilities shifting their stance from curious bystanders to active participants. Utilities ranging from Duke Energy to San Diego Gas & Electric are building microgrids, with many others scratching their collective heads as they try to figure out what their role might be.

If we take a bird’s eye view, the East Coast seems to be the hot bed for regulatory reforms to enable microgrids in a deregulated policy environment—the New York Prize funding for 83 projects being the prime example. California is more focused on long-term planning for a rich variety of distributed energy resources (DER). The country’s heartland is taking yet a different approach, with microgrids that have much more in common with a utility smart grid innovation.

Microgrids in the Chicago Area

The key differentiator in the Chicago area is the large-scale microgrid on the utility side of the meter. These microgrids can take advantage of the expertise of S&C Electric’s portfolio of products. For example, the company’s offerings center on smart switch and smart inverter products to optimize energy storage. Working in conjunction with one another, these hardware devices reduce permanent outages resulting when lateral fuses operate in response to momentary faults—including brief interruptions on feeder lines when substation breakers trip. Other S&C microgrid offerings include an automatic restoration system that can restore power within seconds. This approach—unlike the more typical behind-the-meter microgrids—is designed to manage DER on behalf of the utility first (rather than the customer-focused approach of the majority of microgrids deployed to date).

While S&C Electric serves as an example of vendor innovation, ComEd is exploring the microgrid market with proposals for the rate-basing of utility distribution microgrids. Along with being awarded a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to develop a microgrid controller capable of managing multiple microgrids, ComEd is plowing new ground on the regulatory front. Unlike New York or California, the fate of ComEd’s broader microgrid program designed to steer $300 million in rate-based funding toward six microgrid projects is dependent upon state lawmakers. The proposed legislation—HB 3328/SB 1879—encompasses much more than just microgrids. If approved, however, it would set a major precedent in supporting the concept of rate-basing microgrids to support critical infrastructure. Due to the unique configuration of these proposed systems, the proposed legislation appears to be a major step forward for utility distribution microgrids.

Navigant Research has published its first Leaderboard Report on microgrids. The company ranking is focused on project developers and/or systems integrators that also offer their own controls platform for optimizing a microgrid. As a result, many key innovators in the space were left out—among them, utilities such as ComEd and S&C Electric. Yet, both of these firms are moving the market forward in ways not imagined just a short time ago.


Air Conditioning Controls Overlook Comfort

— August 12, 2015

If you work in an office or know someone who does, you have probably already heard that the patriarchy has set the thermostat too low. A recent study by two Dutch researchers seemingly provided proof of this institutional sexism and promptly set off an Internet firestorm. The study claims that the model that ties thermal comfort to the air temperature used for the control of air conditioning systems relies only on data from men. Moreover, because the metabolic rate of males and females are different, the approach provides too much cooling for female occupants, leaving them to suffer in frigid conditions while their male counterparts are comfortable. The study is unfortunately wrong on two counts: air temperature settings are based on data from equal amounts of men and women, and both men and women suffer from temperatures that are too cold.

If You Can’t Measure It, You Can’t Manage It

Controls for air conditioning need to be set to something that can be measured. Thus, air temperature, which can be measured and is highly correlated to thermal comfort, is used to manage the operation of air conditioning equipment. The specific temperatures engineers use for systems are set by the American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-Conditioning Engineer’s (ASHRAE’s) Standard 55, Thermal Environmental Conditions for Human Occupancy. In a press release, ASHRAE reiterated the fact that Standard 55 is based on the preferred temperature of more than 1,000 subjects with an equal amount of men and women. Unlike paychecks, Standard 55 does not have a gender bias.

The problem highlighted by response to the Dutch study is that temperature and comfort are related but not identical. How comfortable a person feels in a building depends on how much cooling they need (what they are doing, what they are wearing, how old they are, and their body fat) and the state of the air that is provided (temperature, humidity, volume, and speed). Controlling a system that depends on a dozen variables by a single variable leads to both women and men being uncomfortable. Saying that the average person is comfortable at a certain temperature is akin to describing a person with a chicken and a person without a chicken as two people who have an average of half a chicken.

Utopia with the Dialogue of Comfort

Wouldn’t it be great if air conditioning was controlled by comfort rather than temperature? Historically, this dream has been technologically unfeasible. To truly measure comfort, the feelings of building occupants need to be gathered. Not only are engineers bad with feelings, but there isn’t a sensor that can measure them. Nonetheless, air conditioning systems are moving toward comfort-based control.

The Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) building certification program, which rates buildings based on their indoor environment and ecological impact, credits building operators for assessing how comfortably occupants actually are through a survey. Building Robotics, an Oakland-based startup, closes the comfort control loop with its Comfy software. Rather than relying on exclusively on sensors, Comfy has occupants provide direct feedback via a web or smartphone app and changes temperature and airflow accordingly. As better technology enables better building controls, women and men alike will be able to find comfort in the built environment.


Autonomous Vehicle Pros and Cons for Government Budgets

— August 10, 2015

Autonomous vehicles continue to gather media headlines as the industry promises a highly desirable future consisting of drastically reduced vehicle accident rates, congestion, and road emissions. While these impacts and the potential effects on the insurance industry are often discussed at length, less attention has been given to how autonomous vehicles may affect government budgets—particularly law enforcement.

Speeding Tickets

As a prime example, autonomous vehicles simply do not drive faster than posted speed limits. Google’s driverless vehicles have logged more 1 million miles autonomously without receiving a single citation. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the average cost of a speeding ticket in the United States is $152, and about 41 million people receive a citation each year. This amounts to a staggering $6.23 billion in potentially lost state and local government revenue each year due to autonomous vehicles. Additionally, autonomous vehicles do not run red lights or drive under the influence of any substances, eliminating two other significant sources of revenue for government services.

What About Parking?

And then there’s parking; New York City alone generated $534 million in parking ticket revenue in 2013. How autonomous vehicles may affect the business of parking revenue is much less clear than other sources of traffic violation revenue. Navigant Research expects parking to be an area remaining far more in consumers’ hands compared to highway and even city driving, at least in the near term.  Nevertheless, the on-demand nature of autonomous vehicle fleets is expected to reduce personal vehicle ownership over time, and thus the need for parking is expected to decrease, as well. If large numbers of people are using smartphone apps such as Uber to summon autonomous vehicles, parking demand and usage should decrease, which in turn is expected to lead to a significant loss in parking ticket revenue. The extent to which this may happen is unclear thus far.

Revenue Reduction Offset by Reduced Costs?

Conversely, autonomous vehicles may also reduce costs for government, somewhat negating the loss in revenue streams. The NHTSA has stated that 7% of vehicle crashes are paid for with public revenue. This annual taxpayer bill of roughly $10 billion is used for emergency services, property damage, court costs, and other expenses. Autonomous vehicles could drastically reduce or nearly eliminate the 5.6 million accidents occurring annually in the United States, saving local and state governments enormously on expenditures. Reduced demand for parking in densely populated urban areas may also free up land that could be utilized for either residential or commercial development, which could provide a new source of jobs, housing, and tax revenue.

Whether autonomous vehicles will ultimately end up saving governments money or reducing their budgets is unclear. What is clear, however, is that a future where citizens spend little or no money on traffic violations and everyone saves enormously on vehicle crashes and fatalities is a future worth pursuing.


Blog Articles

Most Recent

By Date


Clean Transportation, Electric Vehicles, Policy & Regulation, Renewable Energy, Smart Energy Practice, Smart Energy Program, Smart Grid Practice, Smart Transportation Practice, Smart Transportation Program, Utility Innovations

By Author