When it comes to connecting homeowners with the smart grid, San Diego Gas & Electric may be the most experimental utility in the country. Given the pressures it’s under, it pretty much has to be.

Those pressures include a massive (1.4 million) smart electric meter deployment that’s supposed to be followed up by real-time (or near-real-time) delivery of data from those meters to customers, starting at the end of this year.

Then there’s SDG&E’s new peak rebate program starting next year, aimed at getting homeowners to collectively shift 100 megawatts in peak energy usage to off-peak times. By 2013, the rebates will be followed by optional “dynamic” electric rates for residential customers -- i.e., time-of-use rates, where customers may have to pay more for using energy at the wrong times, rather than get rewarded for using less.

Beyond all that, there’s the surge in rooftop solar power arrays, plug-in electric vehicles and increasingly stringent efficiency mandates that it and its fellow California utilities are expecting. By 2015, SDG&E expects to have 60,000 plug-in cars in its territory, and more than 25,000 customers with distributed renewable energy systems (mostly solar power), adding up to 168 megawatts of solar PV on its system -- a huge new set of variable loads it will have to balance.

So how is SDG&E getting connected to its customers -- and which vendors is it lining up to help out? So far, it’s ahead of its fellow big California utilities on the consumer engagement front, so it’s worth taking a look at how it’s done it so far.

Customer Web Portals: Aclara to Deliver Data to Homeowners

Ted Reguly, director of SDG&E’s smart meter program office, told me that the first and most prominent means of connecting homeowners to their energy use will come via the utility’s web portals, which deliver day-old smart meter data via broadband connections to the home.

That’s the primary way that California’s other big utilities are delivering data, but SDG&E had been ahead of the game, enlisting Google’s PowerMeter platform as well as its own platform, Reguly said. But when Google killed PowerMeter earlier this year, the utility switched over to a web portal built by Itron, which has provided the utility’s smart meters, he said.

While SDG&E will keep using Itron’s underlying meter data management software, next year it plans to transition to the customer web portal designed by Aclara, Reguly added. That’s a pretty big customer win for the utility services unit of ESCO Technologies, though it comes on top of a string of utilities rolling out the company’s customer web portal software (PDF).

“We liked Aclara’s overall customer experience package and analytics,” Reguly said. With SDG&E’s move to peak rebate pricing, time-of-use pricing and other more complex residential rates, “We have a lot more functionality we needed to bring to our customers,” and with SDG&E expecting to be supporting 50,000 users of online energy tools by the end of next year, it also needs to roll out new features to as many customers as possible.

Some of the features Reguly mentioned included tiered pricing alerts, or reminding customers when their cumulative monthly use is about to shift them from one lower rate to a new higher rate, as well as end-of-month bill estimations and other forward-looking type features, he said. Aclara’s software is also good at allowing customers to compare and contrast different rate plans, using historical data and projections to predict what overall bills might look like under a variety of plans, he said.

Beyond that, Reguly said that Aclara has done a good job building “portability,” or the ability to share data with other devices and software systems, into its platform. While that’s not a huge consideration now, it’s expected to become increasingly important as time goes by.

Home Area Networks and Demand Response: Tendril Builds the Platform

Pulling smart meter data back to the utility back-office, then sending it to customers via web portal a day later, has its limits. While it can get some customers interested in saving energy, it can’t help them see and reduce their power use in real time.

To take that next step, SDG&E is doing a series of home area network (HAN) pilots, which today include about 500 in-home displays deployed in customer homes, as well as about 800 programmable controllable “smart” thermostats, Reguly said. Today, SDG&E is using Tendril Networks’ platform to connect them, he added.

“All of our home area network devices are being controlled by TREE [Tendril Residential Energy Engagement software], and everyone that has a HAN device right now is able to use Tendril’s web app for looking at how their devices are doing, and for controlling them,” he said.

Tendril is also supporting consumer engagement projects through its participation in the White House-backed Biggest Energy Saver Campaign. Launched in June, the campaign enlisted SDG&E and Texas utilities Oncor and CenterPoint Energy to figure out ways to get consumers to use less energy.

In SDG&E’s case, that includes partnering with Boulder-based startup Simple Energy, which has built a social networking app that allows customers to compare their energy use to others and compete for the title of top energy saver. That app runs on Tendril’s platform, which is also open to a host of third-party developers

Tendril has about 30 utility partners with a collective potential to reach about 70 million households -- though, of course, it isn’t anywhere close to bringing two-way communication to that many customers. Canada’s Ontario province has the continent’s biggest full-scale rollout of technology-supported time-of-use pricing, which involved about 3.1 million smart meter-connected customers as of this summer. Oklahoma Gas & Electric just announced plans to connect about 50,000 customers to variable pricing using Silver Spring Networks platform and Energate thermostats.

Broadband, not Smart Meters, as Gateway to the Home -- For Now

All these different combinations of technology are using very different methods to communicate with one another. But with a few exceptions, none of them are using smart meters themselves to transmit the lion’s share of the information involved.

That’s because almost all of today’s smart meters transmit relatively infrequently -- about once every 15 minutes for commercial customers and once per hour in SDG&E’s case. That means that, while they are delivering energy data to homes in SDG&E’s pilot projects, they aren’t actually connecting the homes back to Tendril’s cloud-based service. Instead, that’s being done via broadband connections to a Tendril gateway device that networks devices in the home, Reguly said.

Broadband is great for connecting to homes that already have it installed -- but utilities have to serve all their customers, not just the ones with broadband to the home. That puts some pressure on utilities to beef up their advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) to shoulder more and more of the communications burden. 

“Southern California Edison is just starting to use its AMI system to do text messaging,” Reguly noted. In SDG&E’s case, “We’re going to be in the process of going to Itron’s high data rate over the next couple of months,” which will allow increased traffic and reduced latency on the smart meter network. But SDG&E, like most of the rest of the utilities with large-scale smart meter deployments, are waiting for standards such as Smart Energy 2.0 to be finalized before moving forward on more sophisticated smart meter-enabled communications -- and that could take years.

Mixing and Matching Old and New Technologies

In the meantime, SDG&E is using all the technologies it has at hand to get to customers and figure out what works and what doesn’t in convincing them to save energy. Take this summer’s Reduce Your Use program, which signed up about 3,000 customers to volunteer to cut their energy use during hot summer days and other peak power times.

“Our primary way of communicating to customers were emails and text alerts,” Reguly said, adding that the utility also used day-after reports on its customer web portals to show participants how well they did. That’s not an ideal way to connect, but it does enshrine an important concept -- giving customers the choice of how they interact with the utility.

Indeed, SDG&E is also using the age-old method of paper mail, contracting with energy behavior management startup Opower to deliver customers' energy reports once every other month, Reguly said. At the same time, SDG&E and its fellow big California utilities are working on the “Green Button” challenge by developing a common data format for exchanging customer energy data with third parties, which could open up a world of new applications to derive value from it.

“The point I want to make is that one shoe doesn’t fit all,” he said. “We’re trying to look at what’s out there, figure out what works for various segments of our customers, so we can give them a better holistic answer. The whole thing comes down to value versus cost -- what does the customer value, and how much does it cost to deliver it?”