It's hot. Gross-hot, not "let's get outside and enjoy the sunshine!" hot. Although most of the country has recently enjoyed a brief respite from sweltering conditions, it's still pretty damn hot.

The steamy conditions are making demand response to cut critical peak load on the grid more important than ever. While DR has been growing at a good clip in recent years, there has also started to be a shift in how some vendors are approaching the market.

As with other areas of smart grid, costumer engagement is becoming a hot topic in demand response (or demand management, if you prefer). While most companies would claim that they've always had their customers' best interests in mind, a system that notifies customers when to turn down their HVAC to earn some money on the hottest days of the year is not the most keenly attuned consumer experience.

Nevertheless, demand response is becoming a busy space. Companies that once offered only classic demand response services, like CPower and EnerNOC, are expanding into building management, and new players are offering variations on classic DR applications.

EnergyConnect just released its GridConnect platform, which provides commercial customers with a web portal to manage price-responsive peak reduction with the FlexConnect program.

The software lets commercial and industrial clients set up demand response actions and then get alerts via email whenever the price of their electricity hits a point where they might want to implement demand response.

The website shows the savings in dollars, not just kilowatt-hours. Instead of some other programs where customers are penalized if they do not dial down their megawatt usage during peak times, price-response programs allow for more carrot than stick.

 "It's got to make sense and it's got to be easy," said Rich Quattrini, Vice President of Marketing and Business Development at EnergyConnect. "It's one thing to just give a price signal; it's another thing to turn that price signal into actionable information."

For a university that only wants to cycle down their HVAC system for two hours, versus eight, a building manager can see the difference in price savings as well as energy and carbon savings. If the university is enrolled in a curtailment program with the utility, it can make sure it's meeting its megawatt reduction targets in real-time.

Price-responsive demand response is not unique to EnergyConnect, but the company is hoping to continue as a leader in the space. It has more than half of the price-response market in the PJM grid in the past two years.

GridConnect is not only focused on price signals, however. The software also has a more traditional event-driven demand response program, EventConnect, as well as DirectConnect, an automated DR program with some similarity to OpenADR that can be integrated with various systems from companies like Cisco and Siemens.

Quattrini said the benefit of EnergyConnect's platform is that, whether a customer is looking to do event- or price-responsive DR, the information is provided in a way that makes decision making easy.

"We've taken all of our DR services and put them under one central wrapper so customers can easily get at all the features together," he said. The information that's provided on the dashboard, from carbon charts to an energy orb that changes color as energy prices go up, are all built around customer feedback about what they need to make demand response easy.

EnergyConnect is not the only company focusing on the customer experience when it comes to demand response. Comverge just got approval to extend TXU Energy's iThermostat program through 2012 to more than 100,000 residential and commercial customers.

The program, which uses Comverge's Apollo Demand Response Management System, lets customers use a web site or an iPhone to manage their programmable thermostat. That means customers can turn their AC unit up or down from work or another remote location if they forgot to do so on the way out the door in the morning.

Comverge has been expanding in the commercial and industrial side of business, but it still has a strong foothold in the residential side. While the gains are not as big in terms of peak reduction, having a large population program their thermostat from any location could be the sort of control that will keep people engaged -- and that could pave the way for more involvement in peak rebate programs, or eventually, time-of-use pricing.

After ignoring (or at least being apathetic to) consumer needs and desires in the early wave of smart grid deployments, the change in tone is still just beginning from smart meter rollouts to demand response. ECS, a privately held demand response player with more than 2,000 megawatts under management, says that keeping its customers happy is what sets it apart from the pack.

Expect to hear a lot more of that from a lot more companies, and eventually even utilities, in the near future.

Tags: comverge, demand response, energyconnect, flexconnect, ithermostat, txu