Navigant Research Blog

Nest Aims to Shake Up Residential DR

— May 9, 2013

Nest Labs, maker of the Nest learning thermostat, wants to shake up the residential demand response (DR) market.  Nest is taking a three-pronged approach to drive adoption of residential DR services and, of course, sell more of its thermostats:

  • Naming:  First, Nest is not describing its services as demand response, a utility industry term lost on most consumers.  Instead, its DR program is called “Rush Hour Rewards.”  It’s an opt-in procedure whereby customers agree to have their Nest thermostats adjusted automatically during times of peak usage – for example, on a hot summer afternoon when AC usage spikes.  Customers can override the auto-settings whenever they choose.  By naming DR something else, Nest aims to highlight the consumer benefits and ease of use, and shift away from a utility focus.
  • Utility partners: Nest has formed key partnerships with major U.S. utilities that will offer Rush Hour Rewards and related services, including NRG Energy subsidiaries Reliant and Green Mountain Energy, National Grid, Austin Energy, and Southern California Edison.  Combined, these utilities provide service to some 12.3 million customers.
  • Pricing: Finally, Nest and its utility partners have developed aggressive pricing schemes designed to drive adoption.  Rush Hour Rewards participants can earn $20 to $60 per season, depending on their energy provider and other factors.  Also, there are substantial rebates on the Nest thermostat itself, which is pricey otherwise; for instance, National Grid is offering a $100 instant rebate on a Nest thermostat purchased through its website, lowering the cost to $149; and Green Mountain Energy customers who sign up for its Pollution Free Efficient plan receive a Nest thermostat for free.

A related Nest service, called Seasonal Savings, is a program in which the Nest thermostat and its cloud-based calculating engine (called Auto-Tune, like the audio processor) combine to make slight temperature adjustments early in the heating or cooling season.  These fine-tuning adjustments take place automatically in the background, but they can also be overridden by the user.  Nest’s own studies show Seasonal Savings participants can reduce energy use by 5% to 10%, with 80% of trial members opting to keep the suggested schedules.

Can Nest and its utility partners move the needle on residential DR with these new offerings?  Navigant Research’s consumer survey data suggests it is possible, but there will be resistance.  Nearly half of the respondents in our most recent study say they are unwilling to give up thermostat control to their utility (49%), and only about one in five (23%) are prepared to do so.  The challenge will be in convincing enough of the willing to actually go along.  For many people this is completely new customer behavior.  For Nest and its partners to find success, they will need to spend time and money on a sustained marketing campaign that explains the customer benefits.

Willingness to Allow a Utility to Control Thermostat, United States: 2012


(Source: Navigant Research)

Subsidizing the price for the high-end hardware in exchange for some DR should sway some customers.  Another plus is having utilities endorse the product and support the related user-friendly services.  Customers may grumble about their energy utility, but they still view energy providers as a valued source of energy management options such as these.  In addition, the marketing muscle the utility partners provide is a key asset.  As a startup, Nest’s marketing has been good so far in reaching early adopters.  With deeper-pocketed utility partners along, the ability to reach reluctant mainstream users should be quicker and more sustained.

Competitors are not standing still.  Rivals like Honeywell and Carrier are likely to develop competing products and services, and will be looking to set up similar partnership deals with utilities if the Nest scheme proves fruitful.  Other startups in the DR-energy management space, such as EcoFactor, Opower, Tendril, and EnergyHub, have compelling products, as well.  Still, credit Nest for driving innovative outreach to give this segment some fresh momentum.


In the Power Sector, the Lawyers Are in Control

— April 23, 2013

During a recent thunderstorm, a power surge fried the motor of my pool pump.  With prime algae-growing season nearly upon us in Texas, this was suboptimal timing.  Still, being a smart grid researcher, I thought I’d write to my co-operative power supplier, CoServ, and find out what happened.  So I sent a short note via their “Contact Us” web page, asking if they could look into their distribution management system for that Sunday morning and see if there had been a power swell in my neighborhood.  This was purely out of curiosity – this is what I do for a living, right?  Here’s the reply that I received about 4 days later:

 Thank you for taking the time to contact CoServ Electric. As you are aware there were adverse weather conditions in your area at the time of the service abnormalities.

CoServ Electric works hard to ensure all our members receive reliable service. However, because of the nature of the electric utility industry, continuous service cannot be guaranteed. (For example, situations involving animals on the lines, unforeseeable equipment issues, or weather events such as happened in your case.) Because this event was an “Act of God” and not something we could have foreseen or prevented, we cannot accept liability for any reported damage. We recommend contacting a qualified electrician to make sure your electric service beyond the point of service (the electric meter) is properly protected from common outside disturbances.

Thank you again for your report and for allowing us to serve you as a member of CoServ Electric. If you would like to discuss this situation further, feel free to contact me.

Okay, I admit that lots of people walk around with an entitlement mentality.  Still, it would never occur to me that my power utility is responsible for lightning strikes.  Is CoServ up there in the sky hurling thunderbolts at my pool?  Of course not.  They bear no liability for the pump.  So why such a defensive response?

Litigation Phobia

Here’s my theory: because their lawyers made them to do it.  In its 108-page tariff for electric service, CoServ already states that it is not responsible for acts of God.  Nor should it be.  Making any utility liable for all acts of God in its service area would most likely render that utility bankrupt.

And that’s the problem.  I have seen (but will not link here) job postings for “NERC Compliance Manager” where one of the essential candidate requirements is a law degree.  An analysis of NERC CIP v4, which added additional clarification of the term “critical cyber asset” (CCA), shows 17 new clauses to define a CCA.  Each of those clauses gives a utility enough wiggle room in a courtroom to escape penalty.

I’m currently researching cyber security for smart grid telecommunications.  As ever, the overriding investment theme for cyber security emerges as avoidance of fines or litigation.  After 23 research interviews I have a consensus response that there are a handful of utilities in the United States that proactively address cyber security, in each case because of a single individual that really cares.  The remaining utilities are characterized by my contacts as doing the minimum necessary to avoid legal consequences.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for keeping our utilities healthy financially.  From a purely selfish perspective, researching those utilities puts bread on my table.  But – can we please focus on operations and reliability, not legal ramifications?


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