When Santee School District was crowned as one of the winners of Lucid’s California K-12 Kilowatt Challenge, it gained more than just the $7,000 of accumulated energy savings.

The three-week competition allowed the Southern California school district to slash thousands of dollars from its operating expenses, but the win also came with a chance to test out a new hardware and software platform to make it easier to save even more.

Santee School District was given a smart meter wireless gateway from Rainforest Automation that uses Lucid’s commercial building software. The platform is possible now that the local utility, San Diego Gas & Electric, is activating the ZigBee radios in its smart meters.

Before Lucid gave district the platform, Santee’s Pepper Drive Elementary School was downloading fifteen-minute-interval smart meter data through Green Button Connect and then uploading the data onto Lucid’s BuildingOS.

Now, data is pulled in one-minute intervals and is available in real time to the school. The ZigBee radios in smart meters were largely seen as an addition that would enable the home area network. But for the approximately 50 million smart meters in the U.S. that have ZigBee radios, it may be the commercial customers that first leverage the communications protocol.

When it comes to energy efficiency, “One of the biggest barriers is the cost of metering hardware and the cost of systems integration,” said Vladi Shunturov, CEO of Lucid. Last year, Lucid released BuildingOS, which the company hopes will become the default operating system for buildings.

For commercial buildings, especially small and medium-sized facilities, the cost of sophisticated systems integration or even submetering may be too much just to get more accurate data. Enter Rainforest Automation’s gateway, which was first developed for the residential market, but has been tailored for the commercial sector. 

The ZigBee gateway can be set up by the building manager or IT staff and does not require an electrician. The user then usually needs to call the utility and have the radios in the meters turned on. At that point, Lucid’s platform allows customers to benchmark various buildings and see heat maps that show how the building performs throughout the year. It also allows for measurement and verification of energy efficiency investments they have made. The cost is $1,000 per building per year (for up to five meters per building), with lower prices for large customers with hundreds of buildings.

“Installation of the wireless gateway took just ten minutes inside the main office of Pepper Drive School. Before we knew it, we had near-real-time electricity usage data in BuildingOS,” Christina Becker, director of maintenance, operations and facilities at Santee, said in a statement. The technology will also soon be deployed at the rest of the schools in the district.

Lucid’s deep experience with the education market makes schools and universities a natural fit, but the company is also targeting healthcare facilities and even Fortune 500 companies. Some current customers that have already invested in submetering are considering using the gateway to get more granular data. For building owners that haven't done energy benchmarking or paid much attention to efficiency, detailed interval data is probably not the first step. But it could be a solution for customers that are ready to move beyond the basic energy tracking that some companies offer for free, or those that want some measurement and verification for retrofits. 

Granularity of data beyond fifteen minutes and real-time data are features that Green Button does not deliver and likely will not provide in the future. Additionally, Green Button Connect, which will allow customers to automatically send their smart meter data to an approved third party, is woefully behind schedule. 

For companies that are looking at submetering, this offering could gather the data they’re looking for at a lower cost. If BuildingOS continues to add apps, as Lucid hopes to do, then there could be increased functionality as building owners and managers become increasingly sophisticated in managing their energy use.

Of course, the first step is finding customers that are eager to track their energy information. In California, Proposition 39, which allocates funds to local education agencies to support energy efficiency projects, could likely be a driver. It certainly helps that the major investor-owned utilities in the state are getting on board with enabling the radios.

“The ROI is really phenomenal,” said Chris Tumpach, president of Rainforest Automation. “I don’t think that the [Santee] school is a unique situation.”

The tide could be stemmed, however, by slow-moving utilities. Despite the tens of millions of meters with ZigBee radios, many have not been activated. “There’s no monetary motivation to turn on the radio,” said Tumpach, although he noted there were no significant technical challenges barring the utilities from doing so.

Among utilities that have already spent millions of dollars, often calling on ratepayers to shoulder some of the cost, many public utility commissions are looking for immediate benefits for customers. One of those benefits is ensuring that customers have access to energy data that they can use to find ways to save money. Some large investor-owned utilities are seeing the value of turning on the radios for customers; if nothing else, it’s a move to avoid bad PR. California is one market where utilities are now more likely to enable the radios, and it is likely the first region where there could be uptake. “We see California as an immediate opportunity,” said Shunturov.

But Lucid and Rainforest Automation have also pinpointed other utility regions that are ready to go with their ZigBee-enabled smart meters, such as Detroit Edison, Pennsylvania, Texas and BC Hydro. “We think there will be a tidal wave of adoption in the next six months,” said Tumpach.

Tags: energy efficiency, energy management, home area network, interval data, lucid, rainforest automation, sdg&e, smart meters, zigbee radios