Navigant Research Blog

Framing the Smart Grid of the Future

— April 29, 2015

Armed with years of data, utility industry officials are highlighting some of the results from the most ambitious smart grid demonstration project in the United States. One of the key lessons they learned is how difficult it can be to use the latest smart grid hardware to consistently produce high quality data.

That was the conclusion noted recently by Ron Melton, the director of the Pacific Northwest Smart Grid Demonstration Project and a senior leader at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (which is operated by Batelle). Launched in 2010, the demo was federally funded under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) at a cost of $178 million, making it the largest single project of its kind. It included five states—Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming—comprising some 60,000 metered customers, 11 utilities, two universities, and assets in excess of 112 MW. The goal was to test a broad range of ideas and strategies to see if a regional smart grid could lower energy consumption and increase reliability.

Lacking Tools

One of the broad lessons for utilities is that the tools and skills to manage the huge volume of data from smart meters and sophisticated sensors on the grid are largely nonexistent, according to Melton. But it goes beyond merely managing data; the real challenge is to get consistently good data to ensure that sensors across the grid are working properly and that key operating decisions can be made based on reliable high-quality information.

Transactive Control

One of the core technologies used in the project is called transactive control, which in essence is two-way communications between electricity generation and end-use devices, such as electric water heaters, furnaces, clothes dryers, etc. The control signals communicate the price of delivering power to that device at a specific time, and the device can decide when to use electricity—with the owner’s consent, of course. This is the underlying technology for demand response (a topic discussed in detail in Navigant Research’s report, Demand Response Enabling Technologies). Project managers were able to show that transactive control works and could theoretically reduce 4% of peak power costs in the Pacific Northwest. But, as Melton says, this would require about 30% of demand on the system to be able to respond in this way. To get there will take a concerted effort to clearly show the value streams to all parties and then figure out the financial incentives.

Clearly, utilities are still in the early phase of the smart grid and handling big (and small) data in new ways is often uncharted territory. Nonetheless, this demo highlights the framework on which the future grid—what we at Navigant Research see as the energy cloud—will be built, and the steps necessary as the grid of tomorrow emerges.

 

PG&E-Bidgely Pilot Yields Energy Savings, Now It Needs to Scale

— April 20, 2015

Separating energy use in a home down to the appliance level for improving efficiency has long been a goal of technology vendors and utilities alike—some call it a holy grail. The latest effort by California utility Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) and partner Bidgely yielded up to 7.7% energy savings among some 850 participants in a pilot program. The results were announced recently and highlight one of several methods aimed at energy load disaggregation.

The PG&E-Bidgely pilot lasted from August through December of last year. Customers who took part were given an in-home energy monitor that gathered real-time electricity consumption data from a smart meter and broke it down by device. For example, the amount of usage by an air conditioner, refrigerator, pool pump, or clothes dryer was broken out along with a cost estimate. The Bidgely system then provided updates and alerts to customers through online access or mobile devices. Armed with this data, customers could take steps to reduce their consumption, such as delaying a dryer cycle until rates were lower or adjusting the air conditioner (AC).

Points of Entry

Other vendors in this space, like PlotWatt and Smappee, offer to analyze and interpret energy consumption down to the appliance level, as well. Both offer ways of detecting appliance-level consumption and utilize a separate device to do so. But unlike Bidgely, these companies are not focused on utilities as their market point of entry. PlotWatt aims its service at residential customers and restaurants, while Belgium-based Smappee is going direct to consumers for now.

The other big player working to help utilities’ customers reduce consumption is Opower. Though it does not disaggregate household load, its programs do help residential customers change their behavior to reduce consumption. Opower programs have shown that energy use can be reduced by 1% to 3%. In behavioral demand response programs, peak demand has been lowered by up to 5%.

Mainstreaming

For its part, Opower has been able to convince dozens of utilities to deploy its solution at scale among millions of end users. The challenge for Bidgely and the disaggregation competitors is this issue of scale. Can they also provide insights and help change user behaviors across a large number of customers? These latest results are promising, and Bidgely has expanded with projects at Texas utility TXU and London Hydro in Canada. As noted in Navigant Research’s report, Home Energy Management, there is growing momentum and consumer awareness around the latest tools for reducing energy use. The trick will be in sustaining this momentum and moving beyond early adopters and into the mainstream.

 

Storage Helps Ease Schools’ Demand Charge Pain

— April 7, 2015

For many businesses, demand charges are like room service delivery charges for travelers, only more painful. Utilities levy demand charges on customers for short duration peak power usage during a month, which can add between 15%–50% to the cost of a utility bill for the entire month. In some cases, this can mean hundreds or thousands of dollars for a few minutes of excessive power use.

Utilities justify these substantial fees because high consumption of power at peak times can strain transmission and distribution assets or cause them to invoke their most costly generation equipment.

No Money Down

In power-constrained California, where demand charges run high, five school districts have turned to batteries to save money by reducing or avoiding demand charges. Energy storage solutions provider Green Charge Networks (GCN) developed energy storage systems using battery packs from Samsung SDI for Mountain View-Los Altos Union High School District, Oak Park Unified School District, Butte Community College, Peralta Community College District, and California State University, Fullerton.

GCN’s CEO Vic Shao told me that because of the high demand charges (Shao says San Diego Gas and Electric charges $45 per kilowatt), his company can provide the systems for free to the schools. The company can recoup its investment quickly by receiving a share of the savings that the schools receive from avoiding demand charges. For perpetually cash-strapped schools, a no-money-down solution for cutting energy costs can be compelling.

Solar Fee

Since the partnering schools are focused on reducing emissions, GCN also threw in free Level 2 electric vehicle (EV) chargers to incentivize employees and the districts to buy EVs. Shao said that thanks in part to California’s incentive program for storage and other clean energy technologies, the company has done more business aimed at combatting demand charges in the last 2 months than in the previous 3 years. New York City is another attractive market for storage systems, according to Shao.

Similarly, demand for energy storage systems in Arizona could be on the rise thanks to a controversial new demand charge being levied exclusively on solar customers by the Salt River Project utility.

GCN is one of several vendors, along with Stem and CODA Energy, offering storage products aimed at demand charge mitigation, as described in Navigant Research’s report, Community, Residential, and Commercial Energy Storage.

 

Going Small, Americans Seek More Efficient Housing

— March 25, 2015

If you have spent any time on social media lately, you’ve likely encountered at least one post or online album that features so-called tiny homes. Literally tiny, averaging less than a couple hundred square feet, tiny homes have inspired numerous periodical references, coffee table books, and at least one documentary. Given that Americans on average tend to inhabit more square footage than people from almost any other nation, it’s remarkable to see this change in attitude as a growing number of people not only accept, but also intentionally pursue smaller living spaces.

Though it’s a far cry from the idyllic rural landscapes that many tiny houses are photographed in, large cities like New York, where high demand for space has inflated rental and housing markets and regulators are pursuing more sustainable forms of urban development, are benefiting from this minimalist attitude. Recently, a collaborative micro-apartment project called My Micro NY received the city’s adAPT NYC award to design, build, and operate a 55-unit space in Manhattan, with each apartment to be less than 400 square feet.

Hold Please

From an energy-efficiency perspective, small-unit multi-tenant living spaces have many benefits. Individual small units require much less energy to heat and cool, and efficient multi-tenant spaces can benefit from shared climate control. If the resident struggles with personal energy management (e.g., they constantly push the hold button on their thermostat and forget to turn it off), much less energy is wasted in a shared climate. Most importantly, as with multi-tenant spaces in general, heating and cooling can be shared, so the per-capita energy requirements are much lower. And if the space is designed to be energy efficient—or even better, zero energy—then these effects are multiplied.

Of course, there are downsides, including the potential negative effects on one’s health that can be caused by spending too much time in a small, studio-like space. Experts generally agree that while this type of housing can be suitable for young professionals in their 20s, it can have detrimental health effects on individuals in their 30s and 40s who have different lifestyle preferences and forms of stress. Families and couples should be aware of possible issues surrounding privacy and the ability to concentrate in small, shared spaces.

Small Is Beautiful

Still, energy-efficient housing solutions are becoming widely available for people of all ages, incomes, and lifestyle preferences. The explosion of the energy-efficient pre-fab market, which is characterized by smaller overall spaces, is an indication that Americans are compromising space for efficiency—and not necessarily with cost as a major driver (aside from the fact that smaller square footage = less overhead cost).

Although tiny homes on wheels and pod apartments will likely remain niche markets, the growing buzz and number of options offer design and lifestyle benefits that are catching the interest of many Americans. As a culture, Americans are still far from being characterized as energy-conscious, but this growth in the small housing market signals a step in the right direction.

 

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