Navigant Research Blog

What Robots Can Teach Us about Energy Management

— October 14, 2014

The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) has learned some valuable lessons from a study involving the use of robotics to simulate human behavior.  The results show that dramatic improvements in efficiency can be obtained with a combination of new technology and a focus on energy efficient construction techniques.

The 5-year Campbell Creek project involved three similar Knoxville, Tennessee-area homes.  Each has the same floor plan, with two stories, and measures between 2,400 and 2,500 square feet.  Here is how they differ:

  • Builder House: This was the control home, or benchmark, built to represent a typical residence constructed for the Tennessee Valley and built to local building codes.
  • Retrofit House: This house was essentially the Builder House, but retrofitted with energy efficiency technologies, such as more energy efficient windows, ENERGY STAR appliances, compact fluorescent lights, sealed attic with foam insulation, and high efficiency heat pumps.
  • High Performance House: This house was built using the latest available construction technologies aimed at energy efficiency, as well as PV panels and solar water heating to help make it a near zero energy house.

The TVA then outfitted each home with robotic devices to mimic human behavior.  For example, a robotic arm on the refrigerator in each home would open the door simultaneously at 3:00 in the afternoon, when kids typically arrive home from school.  Each home had the same automated systems to turn on lights, televisions, appliances, and showers.  The homes also had a device that replicates how a person’s body heat affects the temperature and humidity of a room.  In addition, each home had hundreds of sensors installed to monitor energy consumption of all the subsystems.

Results and Lessons

The Builder House had a utility bill of about $1,600 a year, the Retrofit about $1,000, and the High Performance was slightly more than $400, according to project managers.  Based on the Home Energy Rating System (HERS) Index, the homes scored as follows: Builder House, 101; Retrofit House, 68; and High Performance House, 34 (a lower score is better).

The TVA project was conducted with partners Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI).  Near real-time data from the project as well as archived results are available at the EPRI web site.

These are not exactly startling results, but this intriguing study has valuable lessons for all stakeholders – utilities, homebuilders, and homeowners.  One main lesson is that doing basic things like tightening a home’s envelope with enhanced insulation and energy efficient windows will have lasting benefits.  Also, investing in the most efficient HVAC and water heating systems one can afford will pay off in energy savings.  The manager of the project, David Dinse, who has just retired, told me the project has generated quite useful data – so why aren’t more builders and utilities taking these lessons and running with them?

 

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.

 

Utility Customers Respond to Variable Pricing

— September 7, 2014

On July 23, Baltimore Gas and Electric (BGE) customers earned more than $2.5 million by reducing their electricity usage during peak summer heat hours.  Over 640,000 residences voluntarily participated – nearly an 80% participation rate among those who were notified – amounting to an average bill credit of $6.80, enough to buy an ice cream cone while turning down the air conditioning a few degrees.

BGE is the first utility in the country to put all of its customers with smart meters on a default Peak Time Rebate program.

It works like this: BGE customers with a smart meter can participate in the BGE Smart Energy Rewards program by voluntarily reducing their electricity usage to earn a bill credit of $1.25/kWh saved from 1 p.m. to 7 p.m. on designated energy savings days.  Eligible customers will be notified, usually the evening before, by an automated phone call, e-mail, or text message.  BGE anticipates that there will be 5 to 10 energy savings days in a summer season.

Smarter Grids, Smarter Customers

BGE has had a traditional direct load control (DLC) residential DR program for many years, and it has been successful within its own parameters.  However, the company has been installing advanced metering infrastructure (AMI), as covered in Navigant Research’s Smart Meters report, over the last few years, and with that network comes new capabilities (and regulatory requirements to meet cost-benefit thresholds).  AMI provides the utility and potentially customers with near-real-time interval meter data, so the utility can send time-based price signals and get almost immediate feedback on customer performance.  Couple these abilities with new end-user device and thermostat technologies that enable fast response and remote control by the customer, and you have more customer-centric, flexible demand response (DR) programs than were possible before; this can increase customer penetration rates dramatically.

Right on Time

Other innovative companies are trying different variations of programs and pricing offerings.  The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) is looking to become the first utility to have a default time-of-use (TOU) rate after running a successful pilot that showed that customers preferred TOU structures to their standard flat rate.  The guiding principles of Oklahoma Gas and Electric (OG&E) for DR include voluntary participation for customers and no DLC by the utility, relying completely on customer empowerment.  OG&E believes that pairing dynamic pricing with technological devices will achieve these goals.  The province of Ontario, Canada has instituted default TOU pricing for customers with smart meters since 2005, the only area in North America to do so.  A traditional DLC program already existed in the province, and now the plan is to combine the control ability of the DLC with TOU pricing to help customers respond to price variations.  Massachusetts is set to become the first U.S. state to mandate default critical peak pricing (CPP) based on a recent order by the Department of Public Utilities.

All of these developments and other innovative programs are covered in Navigant Research’s new report, Residential Demand Response.  The report discusses industry trends around the world and provides 10-year forecasts of sites, capacity, and revenue, including breakouts between DLC and dynamic pricing.  Over time, all these different pilot projects will blossom into full-blown programs and expand into other jurisdictions, creating a truly responsive demand side of the energy equation.

 

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.

 

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