Navigant Research Blog

Digital Assistants Are a Stepping Stone for Artificial Intelligence in the Home

— November 21, 2017

Artificial intelligence (AI) is gaining hype and capturing headlines about its futuristic possibilities. Popular media, like Blade Runner 2049, depicts AI as a technology powering human-like robots with capabilities for taking over the world. In reality, AI is here, and it is already used in everyday lives. Today, AI is enabling ridesharing applications like Lyft and Uber, autopilot in commercial flights, mobile check deposits, online shopping, and more. The technology is making significant progress across a variety of markets and is spreading to the smart home.

The home is abundant with opportunities to automate tasks and create more personal experiences with technology. AI can be used to enhance solutions that help consumers better understand and manage energy consumption and keep homes safer and more secure. Also, it creates more intelligent and intuitive home automation by studying patterns of human behavior to operate the home more efficiently.

The Digital Assistant

One obvious way in which AI is spreading through the home is digital assistants. Digital assistants, or virtual assistants, are the human-like user interface embodying AI software and cloud services. They are fundamentally changing the way users interact with technology by creating an easy-to-use, hands-free, and conversational experience via voice activation. They also represent a platform that converges devices, data, services, computing power, and the internet to better understand and anticipate consumer needs. While the novelty of using digital assistants is driving adoption and market growth (try playing Jeopardy with Alexa), this technology has powerful implications. Many companies recognize this potential, and large tech incumbents like Amazon, Google, Apple, Samsung, and Microsoft are quickly and heavily investing in AI and digital assistants for the home.

Though digital assistants promise market disruption and a fundamental shift in the use of technology, it is important to stay realistic about AI in the home. Some would argue that traditionally defined AI does not even exist in the home—they would argue it’s all just analytics and algorithms. Others would argue that this is the reality of AI—it isn’t glamorous, it’s about automating tasks and identifying behavioral trends to make our lives more comfortable, convenient, and efficient. How this technology will play out—whether it will be a benevolent and revolutionary technology or whether it will become an existential threat to human existence—remains to be seen. For now, AI is having an impact in the home in the form of digital assistants. Check out Navigant Research’s Digital Assistants and AI in the Home report for more information.

 

Cities: The Focal Point of Climate Action

— November 17, 2017

This blog post was written by Richard Boehnke.

Cities are a focal point of climate action, both individually and as signatories to large networks dedicated to climate mitigation (e.g., Covenant of Mayors and C40). However, efforts to pledge support, sign an agreement, and publish a local climate strategy with an emissions target do not equate to implementing meaningful climate action. Little data is available to support whether cities are on track to achieving targets or if their targets can be met. For example, with the Netherlands reporting only a 3.8% emissions reduction between 2010 and 2015, municipal governments will be required to take the lead in climate action. Yet, with limited budget and staff working on mitigation, most municipalities are also falling behind on individual climate targets. Ecofys, a Navigant company, investigated which existing best practices could be used by local governments to work towards achieving climate goals.

Opportunities for Local Governments: Best Practices in Climate Action

The study examined 26 best practices from 13 Dutch municipalities. These ranged from community energy ambassadors in Almere, to an energy coalition in Den Bosch, to the investment scheme that led to the construction of large wind turbines in Nijmegen. Civil servants stated the goal of these practices was to act as facilitator, engaging the public and businesses to mediate regulatory and institutional processes. However, more needs to be done to meet ambitious targets.

The First Missing Piece: Collaboration

Listening to other departments’ targets and collaborating on projects is crucial to developing citywide climate solutions. Climate projects typically involve several aspects of city development and are frequently cut due to varying priorities when considering the expense of a specific climate measure. It is possible to use mitigation actions to achieve municipal targets because of the broad impact these actions can have beyond reducing CO2 emissions, like air quality improvement or job creation. Achieving climate targets can be considered a co-benefit when conducting successful and profitable municipal projects.

The Second Missing Piece: Monitoring

Databases like the Klimaatmonitor—which contains key energy and climate statistics for Dutch municipalities—are extremely useful for overviews of municipal progress and national trends. However, there are no clear data or monitoring schemes of local climate projects. This gap limits decision makers because the effects of any given project are not known. Without this data, pilots are less likely to be scaled, best practices are difficult to develop and replicate, and real-time progress cannot be assessed.

A Way Forward

Clear, actionable climate plans are necessary to realize the potential of local climate action. Local governments lack public short- and long-term plans in areas where emissions will be locked in (e.g., district vs. electric heating, hydrogen vs. e-transport, in-depth vs. cursory building renovations). There are several tradeoffs when considering each of these paths, but inaction will only delay the inevitable choice and reduce related short- and mid-term benefits. Robust climate plans require:

  • Emissions targets
  • Emissions baseline
  • Budget
  • Stakeholders
  • Clear measures
  • An implementation plan and timeline
  • A monitoring scheme

If full-bodied plans are implemented, municipalities can share each step of their projects and monitor progress towards achieving local climate goals. With public long-term planning, citizens, cooperatives, and businesses can participate, invest in, and adapt to the municipal energy transition. Municipalities will have to invest a lot more than the currently allocated budgets and manpower to become climate neutral in 20-30 years.

Research conducted for the municipality of Utrecht (350,000 inhabitants) shows that if all measures were realized within the city limits, becoming climate neutral would require investments of about €9.5 billion. However, if the municipality agreed to take part of its investments outside of Utrecht (e.g., funding offshore wind in the North Sea), total investments could be reduced to roughly €4 billion. Ecofys, a Navigant company, proposes that national and municipal governments should agree on a fair effort sharing to reduce overall societal costs.

For more information, please get in touch with our team.

 

If You Build It, They May Come: Solving for Customer Experience in TE Platforms

— November 16, 2017

The utility customer of the future lives at the center of an ecosystem of networked and largely automated smart devices. Their household is within their preferred temperature range whenever they are at home; their EV charges when electricity prices are cheapest and is always ready for the morning commute; and they store any surplus electricity generated by their rooftop PV or, if the price is right, sell it in a digital market. Every decision made by each of these devices is a data point used by different service providers to refine and optimize customers’ distributed energy resources (DER) and integrate them with wider grid processes.

Transactive energy (TE) platforms will underpin tomorrow’s consumer energy market. The interface between energy producers and consumers, TE platforms allow parties to interact with one another in an open market while ensuring the needs of end users and the grid are met. These platforms will incorporate multiple technologies—including blockchain and machine learning—which have attracted a great deal of interest from the energy industry. But what should the consumer experience with TE platforms look like in practice?

TE Platforms Must Balance Grid Needs, User Preferences, and Ease-of-Use

TE service providers must supply an appealing product that creates value out of the box while providing options for users who are more hands-on. Optimizing household energy consumption to minimize costs requires a multitude of forecasts, calculations, and decisions. Since electricity bills in the US average around $115 per month, or 0.2% of the median household income ($55,000), the typical consumer has little incentive to manage these processes themselves.

Grid+, a technology startup and TE platform provider, solves this problem by supplying users with intelligent agents—hubs that integrate price signals, user preferences, and grid needs to coordinate a household’s smart device (TransActive Grid and Grid Singularity have a similar approach). While some user preferences may be set manually (e.g., preferred temperature range), most will be automated based on analyses of user behavior (e.g., heating the house prior to the customer’s return from work). The user decides their preferred balance of comfort and profits and they need only supply the agent with enough currency to pay bills and execute the necessary transactions on their behalf. All transactions are recorded rapidly and securely on a blockchain.

Thinking with Portals

Aspiring platform providers must devote as much attention to the end-user experience as they do to their platforms’ underlying technology. Customers balance their own comfort levels, convenience, financial costs and profits, and societal or ethical goals when making decisions about electricity consumption. Automation and machine learning solutions have the technological capability to deliver on that balance, but optimizing behind the scenes won’t be enough to inspire consumer trust or purchasing power.

The reality is that the Energy Cloud customer won’t care whether their platform rests on blockchain or a centralized database or a traditional billing system. They’ll care about outcomes and will need on-demand access to a portal that elegantly consolidates and visualizes their Internet of Things (IoT) ecosystem’s performance: What are their profits from selling power to the neighbors? How well is their PV system performing and have they paid off the install costs? How efficient is their home? Positive, confident results will drive further investment into the platforms themselves (so might friendly rivalries between local users).

For TE platform providers, competition for users will be fierce, and consumers will have their pick of platforms vying for their attention. The TE leaders in the Energy Cloud future may not have the most advanced technology, but they will have a blend of technology, functionality, user interface design, and perhaps gamification that creates an attractive and compelling user experience.

 

Cybersecurity Threats Mount, but Overall Picture Not So Bleak

— November 16, 2017

Cybersecurity threats keep mounting against the grid, corporations, and individuals. The known attacks and security holes revealed in the past year are real and cause for serious concern. The whole picture, however, might not be as bleak as it first appears if utilities focus on getting ahead of cybersecurity threats. The good guys are in this fight and they have solid tools to keep us safe. Among grid-related threats, at least three incidents stand out as examples of how grim the situation could become if utilities do not proactively address cyber attacks.

It was revealed in August that a foreign power had compromised the state-owned Irish power grid company EirGrid, according to a report by Ireland’s Independent newspaper. When the hack was first discovered, experts said the breach occurred more than 2 months beforehand. At the time, the newspaper’s sources said it was still unknown if any malicious software had made its way into EirGrid’s control systems. Though it is unclear which foreign power was involved, the hackers used Internet Protocol (IP) addresses sourced from Ghana and Bulgaria.

In July, US officials revealed that hackers had penetrated computer networks of companies operating nuclear power stations, other energy facilities, and manufacturing plants. Wolf Creek Nuclear Operating Corp.’s power plant near Burlington, Kansas is one of the nuclear facilities specifically named. The nefarious activity caused the US Department of Homeland Security and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation to issue an amber warning, which is the second-highest rating level. It turns out the hackers were unable to hop from victims’ computers into control systems, and officials said there was no sign of a threat to public safety.

In mid-October, millions of people found out that nearly all Wi-Fi devices were at risk of hijack and eavesdropping because of a bug known as KRACK that exposes a flaw in the common security protocol WPA2. If exploited, a hacker could use a skeleton key to access any WPA2 network without a password. Patches for thwarting the threat have been made available from some vendors, while others are still pending.

Grid Cybersecurity

So, how high are the overall risks? Potentially rather high, but perhaps not as high as one might think for the grid in particular. According to Philip Propes, chief security information officer for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), the situation is not doom and gloom in the electric utility sector. During a recent webinar, he said officials in the utility industry are well aware of cybersecurity issues and many have taken appropriate steps. In TVA’s own case, he says his team is moving from a reactive approach to a proactive approach around security and getting ahead of attacks before an event occurs.

Furthermore, private experts and researchers at the US Department of Energy’s national labs are working on new methods to reduce the threat from cyber attacks. One project at Oak Ridge National Laboratory would set up a private communications and control system for the grid, called darknet, that would operate separately from the public internet. Also, the use of quantum encryption capabilities could add enhanced security for the grid.

Cybersecurity risks should not be taken lightly, but there is no reason to panic. There is a growing sense of urgency among experts and officials to collaborate on robust solutions and progress is being made quietly, despite the mounting threats. For a more in-depth look at how utilities are responding to these threats, check out Navigant Research’s Cybersecurity for the Digital Utility report, written by my colleague Michael Kelly.

 

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