Navigant Research Blog

In a Connected World, Cars Talk to Buildings

— August 20, 2015

It wasn’t so very long ago that communications were largely limited to living beings, whether it was birds, whales, dogs, or people. Our devices were largely mute, performing functions when requested by a button or switch, but otherwise isolated from each other. The development of high-bandwidth wired and wireless communications over the past 2 decades has led to a corresponding transformation with the development of devices that communicate and often act without human intervention. While we are still a long way from Skynet, ubiquitous connectivity is enabling a wide range of possibilities that can help reduce our energy demands in the coming years.

Connected Thermostats, Cars, and More

The old-fashioned set it and forget and even the newer programmable thermostats are being supplanted by wireless, cloud-connected versions like the Nest. In place of a simple mechanical thermocouple, these newer units include sensors to detect motion, light, and humidity, as well as Wi-Fi connections, to the Nest servers to take advantage of big data machine learning and remote control from smartphone apps. By tracking usage patterns and local weather conditions, these thermostats automatically create custom control profiles to provide optimum comfort and minimize energy use.

Ever since the advent of the modern plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) at the turn of the last decade, many of these vehicles have been able to connect to remote servers to get localized electric utility rates. When plugged in at night, they can delay charging until off-peak rates begin, reducing the load on the grid and saving costs for owners. Beginning in 2016, the first cars will start rolling out with vehicle-to-vehicle communications systems that enable cars to broadcast safety-related messages to other nearby vehicles. According to Navigant Research’s Connected Vehicles report, about 80%–90% of new light duty vehicles in North America and Western Europe are expected to be using the technology by 2025.

Researchers, including those at the Detroit technology incubator, NextEnergy Center, are working on new ways to connect these and many other disparate systems to leverage even more information and harness the energy storage in idle PEVs for additional savings. Among the numerous projects at NextEnergy are studies of vehicle-to-building (V2B) and microgrid systems. A small house at the center has been equipped with a direct current wiring system and appliances that enable easier and more efficient energy transfer between the rooftop solar panels, the interior of the house, and the battery electric vehicle parked outside. Another study is developing a model for how many PEVs would be needed to get an optimum balance between vehicle cost and energy cost savings from reducing peak demand for commercial buildings.

The NextEnergy Center will host a 1-day conference on September 9, 2015 called the V2B Mashup. The event includes panels and presentations with speakers from Cisco, General Motors, Visteon, the U.S. Department of Energy, DTE Energy, and more. Seating is limited and online registration is available at


PEV Sales Grow Everywhere … Except Where They Started

— August 20, 2015

When the Nissan LEAF and the Chevrolet Volt were introduced in late 2010, plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) sales were concentrated on the respective automakers’ domestic markets, Japan and the United States. Japan was the largest PEV market in 2010, was quickly overtaken by the United States in 2011, fell behind Western Europe in 2012, and then behind China in 2014. Meanwhile, the United States has maintained a lead on China and Western Europe, but it’s possible that like Japan, it too will fall behind China and Western Europe this year.

In the first 7 months of 2015, PEV sales in the United States are down 6.3%. Many of the compliance PEVs made by Toyota and Honda have been phased out, while production of higher-volume PEVs has slowed before the introductions of the next-generation updates scheduled to be released before the end of the year. Similarly, only one new PEV has been introduced this year, the Mercedes S550 PHV, which is a high-end luxury vehicle likely to be sold at low volumes. The limited amount of new vehicle introductions is a stark transition from 2012, 2013, and 2014, where over the course of each year, around six new PEV models were deployed.

Meanwhile, in China and Western Europe, PEV sales in the first 6 months of 2015 are estimated to be up 175%, and 77%, respectively. The surge in China and Western Europe can be attributed to PEV introductions from an influx of domestic automaker platforms alongside significant government incentives in select Chinese cities and European countries. Volkswagen, Mitsubishi, and BYD have been particularly aggressive in these markets. In addition, the oil price dive has been less impactful on retail fuel prices in these markets than in North America due to higher taxes on retail fuels in these markets.

Though the North American market is slowing relative to China and Western Europe, annual growth is likely achievable by the end of the year. Despite some delays, a number of new PEV models are set to be introduced in the next few months. Among the introductions are three SUVs: the Volvo XC90 T8, the Tesla Model X, and the BMW X5 eDrive, which will help break PEVs into new high-volume markets. Similarly, the redesign of the Chevrolet Volt, which increases the vehicle’s all-electric range and internal combustion engine fuel efficiency at a lower purchase cost, is set to go into production this month.

However, for Japan, growth is likely negative in 2015; the market has contracted over 20% over the first half of the year. This puts Japan in line to fall behind Norway, the United Kingdom, and France, with Germany closing in. Most of Japan’s PEV sales come from domestic automakers Nissan and Mitsubishi. Toyota and Honda have been reluctant to sell PEVs, favoring fuel cell technologies instead. With BMW and Tesla being the only foreign PEV automakers making sales in the country, PEV availability in Japan is severely limited.


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.


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