Thursday, September 22, 2011

Observations From Gridweek 2011

In his latest blog post, Gary concluded that there is no one "Killer Smart Grid App", but instead a number of apps all equally important in the efforts of creating a smarter grid. Last week, I had the privilege to attend Gridweek 2011 and this point was extremely evident as discussions on topics ranging from distribution automation to EV charging and energy storage were everywhere to be found. One area in particular that sparked my interest was home energy management. Both the exhibit hall and sessions were buzzing with topics such as energy management technology, consumer empowerment, and residential demand response programs. It is evident that stakeholders in the Smart Grid space have expanded their focus beyond the meter to include end users, a very important piece of the overall equation.

In the area of home energy management technology, the exhibit hall featured companies like Opower, who doesn’t sell physical products at all (although the company announced a partnership with Honeywell during the show) but instead offers software and analytics that help utilities (57 of them currently) better interact with customers. Tools such as home energy reports, online tools, and energy alerts (involving the ever important smart phone) help customers become more energy efficient, assist with daily and seasonal utility peak reduction programs, and are said to make consumers happier. Another company featured in the hall, Energate, offers products (such as smart thermostats, in-home displays, and wireless communication gateways) as well as software, all part of the company’s Home Energy Management Suite. The technology allows consumers to manage their energy use and reduce peak demand, and provides utilities the ability to implement demand response programs. These weren’t the only companies in the home energy management space present in the exhibit hall, with other companies present including Digi International, Comverge, and Tendril.

Behind all of the excitement of these cutting edge home energy management products and solutions, there was an underlying question that came up during multiple sessions: "How do we get customers excited about and interested in this technology?" Time and time again, the answer involved creating value for the customer without overcomplicating the matter. It is critical that the customer understands how home energy management benefits them, and not the utility. These benefits could vary by consumer, but could be anything from a few dollars saved on their monthly bill to the convenience of having automated systems in the home. One point made during the show that I thought was great is that customers can be conscious, smart, energy users without ever knowing what a kW is! With that said, another question that came up frequently was "What about those customers who are against this technology due to various concerns?" Smart phones have shown us that these concerns (such as privacy or potential health issues due to radio frequencies) seem to disappear once you are able to show value and create consumer dependency on a product or solution.

While it is evident that Smart Grid stakeholders still have quite a bit of work to do in the home energy management space, it is encouraging that this was such a hot topic at Gridweek 2011. Creating value for the consumer will be important and helping consumers to realize this value will be critical. It will be exciting to see how home energy management evolves as it becomes more of a priority in creating a smarter grid.

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