Navigant Research Blog

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%.


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.


In Golden Age, Natural Gas Becomes Generation Workhorse

— March 9, 2015

The promised golden age of natural gas has begun to take hold globally. Fortunately, rising natural gas demand will not require a corresponding increase in infrastructure spending across the United States, according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Energy. These findings hold even as the U.S. electric power sector—currently the largest consumer of natural gas in the country—saw generation from natural gas replace that of coal in recent months. This corresponds with a sharp increase in demand for natural gas from multiple end-use sectors.

With the Henry Hub reference price for natural gas in the United States lingering below $5 per million Btu (mmBtu) since the early part of 2014, a demand surge is expected to continue across the power generation sector.

Renewables and Gas

The United States, already the largest consumer of natural gas in the world, is expected to see a 33% increase in demand by 2040, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Annual Energy Outlook 2014 reference case. Growth is expected to be 42% for the electric power sector between 2012 and 2040 under the same scenario.

Living up to its promise as a bridge fuel to a low carbon future, natural gas is helping backfill baseload generation, especially in areas where coal plant retirements are highest. The combination of wind or solar power and gas-fired generation, meanwhile, has emerged as an option for states looking for more access to lower-carbon electricity. This hybrid approach is playing out across the expansive areas of the West, where electrical grid transmission bottlenecks have made it difficult to export renewable generation from areas of high productivity (e.g., Wyoming) to population centers on the West Coast, for example.

Not Laying Pipe

The increased use of natural gas in the electric power sector, however, is not without potential challenges. Unlike competing fuels, natural gas is delivered as it is consumed, and cannot be stored onsite like coal. Furthermore, adequate infrastructure is needed to maintain electric system reliability. The investment of $65 billion in new interstate pipeline construction over the past 18 years appears to be sufficient to deliver natural gas from producing regions to end users across the country without substantial new investment.

Unlike the U.S. electrical grid, natural gas power plants and natural gas production are both broadly distributed rather than geographically concentrated, reducing constraints on interstate pipeline capacity. What’s more, lower-cost investment options, such as improving the utilization of existing infrastructure and rerouting gas flows, are far cheaper than building new pipelines.

As the U.S. power sector faces several concurrent transitions—retirement of coal-fired generation, aging electrical transmission infrastructure, and a surge in the use of intermittent renewables—these findings suggest that natural gas will continue its emergence as the workhouse on the modern electrical grid.


Thermostat Studies Show Benefits of Being Smart

— February 16, 2015

This month Nest announced several studies that have been conducted on its learning thermostat.  One was conducted by MyEnergy, a Nest subsidiary that analyzes residential energy information. The others were conducted by the Energy Trust of Oregon and by Vectren Corporation, an Indiana-based holding company. The results boost Nest’s claims that the thermostat can pay for itself in only a year or 2.

Across the studies, evaluators found average annual reductions in electricity use between 13.9% and 15% for cooling and 10% and 12% for heating loads.  For natural gas, the Vectren study confirmed an average annual reduction of 12.5%.  In terms of cost savings, Nest states that adopters showed an average of 9.6% savings on their gas bill and 17.5% on their electric bill.

Last year, competitors EnergyHub and EcoFactor released third-party studies that indicated reductions in electricity use of 6% to 17% after thermostats controlled by their back-end platform were installed in users’ homes.

The Limits of Studies

Smart thermostats have become increasingly numerous in recent years. According to Navigant Research’s report, Smart Thermostats, North American household penetration of these devices is expected to exceed 20% by 2023. Until recently the market was concentrated in warm weather states, but adoption across colder climates is becoming more common, and utilities are becoming interested in smart thermostats for year-round energy efficiency and demand response (DR) programs.

Regardless, the high prices—$150 to $300 for the device alone—are still a barrier. Hence, smart thermostat vendors have trumpeted third-party studies that indicate positive return on investment (ROI) through energy bill savings. Analyses of products from EcoFactor, EnergyHub, and now Nest indicates annual energy savings in the 8% to 15% range.

But such studies can be interpreted in several ways. The most obvious conclusion is that the chances of incurring similar savings are good given the variety in the studies’ methodology and sample populations. On the other hand, factors like the locations of households, weather varying, and simultaneous energy efficient behaviors all affect study results.

Your Results May Vary

For states where heating and cooling are a small part of the utility bill, the savings from a smart thermostat will look different than those in an area where the costs are high. In such cases the results could be misleading.

The MyEnergy study included households from all over the country in its sample, and Nest claims that it is fairly representative of their adoption base—but is that representative of U.S. consumers as a group? The average reported savings might not fall in the middle of the spectrum of all consumers, so someone using this information as a basis for purchase of the $250 device could be anywhere from greatly or slightly disappointed to slightly or very pleased depending on how similar they are to the majority observed that indicated decent savings.

And if the consumer doesn’t really care enough to break down this information in the first place, much less nitpick findings from a variety of disparate studies? These types of adopters might be drawn to purchase the device simply for its user delight qualities. Nest has created an iconic device that by most accounts works really well and that has a lot of informational features designed to trigger more energy efficient behavior. That would be a great outcome.


Utility-Scale Energy Storage: The Next Killer App

— February 10, 2015

In recent years in the power sector, companies like C3 Energy and Space-Time Insight have been introducing groundbreaking applications that can provide powerful data and insights across the utility value chain, from the customer to the independent system operator (ISO). Looking back over the Navigant Research utility transmission and distribution technology forecasts in our syndicated reports—and our 10-year forecasts for those technologies—it’s clear that utility-scale energy storage is among the technologies undergoing the most dramatic transformations, thanks to these applications.

Since 2009, the California Energy Commission (CEC) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) have invested millions of dollars in utility-scale storage through both smart grid demonstration project funds and Advanced Research Projects Agency – Energy (ARPA-E) R&D grants.

Next-Generation Investment

In December, Eos Energy Storage announced that it had won a $2 million award from the CEC to deploy and demonstrate a 1 MW grid-scale battery system at Pacific Gas and Electric’s (PG&E’s) Smart Grid Lab in San Ramon, California. The project, called Aurora, was the only advanced battery storage system recipient of grant funding.

According to Eos, its Aurora battery system “can be manufactured at a fraction of the cost of existing energy storage solutions.” The Edison, New Jersey-based company is joining with PG&E, the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), distributed energy storage technology pioneer Stem, and ETM Electromatic to carry out the project.

“This type of project deployment can meet the requirements of California’s utilities and industrial users at a price that will compete with gas peaking plants, providing both peak generation and infrastructure benefits,” said Philippe Bouchard, Eos vice president of Business Development, in a statement.

Strategy for Scale

Eos’ Aurora direct current (DC) battery, power electronics from ETM, and Stem’s real-time data analytics are being implemented at PG&E’s Smart Grid Lab in San Ramon.  EPRI is managing interconnection and systems integration requirements. LBNL will employ real-time grid simulation to assess “system benefits under dynamic load and renewable integration use cases.”

The Eos Aurora 1000/4000 battery system delivers 1 MW of electrical power for 4 hours, which is more than enough to mitigate peak power demands, thus avoiding costly investments in transmission and distribution upgrades. It also offers fast-response surge capabilities that can manage the intermittency of solar, wind, and other renewable energy grid assets.

Looking further down the road, so to speak, it’s clear that energy storage will advance thanks to major investment from car makers such as Tesla, which is placing its bets with the new Gigafactory in Nevada. Large volumes of mass-produced batteries will be essential to Tesla and other electric vehicle manufacturers. And this mass production strategy for battery technology also brings increased scale that may reduce deployment costs. With clever engineering, this strategy will help expand residential and utility deployments, as well.


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