Fresh on the heels of landing Japan’s NTT Data as a partner for international projects, Silicon Valley big-data startup AutoGrid Systems has formed another partnership with a big player in its home territory of U.S. residential demand response.
That’s Schneider Electric, the French power equipment giant, which plans to announce Thursday that it’s adopting AutoGrid’s Energy Data Platform into its line of hardware and software for home energy management and demand response.
Schneider’s Wiser home energy management platform, released back in 2011, includes in-home displays, smart plugs, load control devices and smart thermostats, all using an internet gateway to allow the use of a web portal and mobile device controls. With Thursday’s deal, Wiser deployments in the United States will be integrated with AutoGrid’s cloud-based big data platform, which combines weather data, smart meter readings, real-time homeowner feedback and other such disparate data.
“The amount of data that flows from a home energy management system like Wiser -- service-status data, load-control data, and of course, the metering, whether though a standalone power meter or the AMI [smart meter] system -- is significant,” Yann Kulp, vice president of strategy and business development for Schneider Electric, said in an interview this week. “That’s an awesome opportunity for utilities."
But in real-world terms, “managing that feedback is like drinking from a fire hose,” he added. “You need those analytics to determine if that demand response programs are effective or not,” or, in fact, “just to design programs that are effective.”
That also happens to be AutoGrid’s specialty. Since its 2011 launch, the Palo Alto, Calif.-based startup has worked with customers including Palo Alto’s municipal utility, California’s Sacramento Municipal Utility District, Texas’ Austin Energy and Oklahoma Gas & Electric, the last in partnership with smart meter networking company Silver Spring Networks.
Technology that allows customers to choose their own ways of responding to rebates, incentives or time-of-use pricing schemes are a lot more popular than direct load control programs, which allow utilities to turn customer air conditioners, pool pumps and other big energy loads on and off by remote control, Kulp noted.
But as AutoGrid CEO Amit Narayan pointed out, “As they give more choice to consumers, the dispatchability and reliability of these programs goes down.” In other words, far more customers are likely to sign up to a choice-based program, but just how they will respond when utilities need them is much harder to predict.
“That’s where big-data analytics come in,” Narayan said. Calculating the interplay between smart grid and smart home technology-enabled customers and utility grid imperatives like day-ahead or hour-ahead demand reductions requires crunching a ton of data very quickly, both to see how people react in near-real time, and how they continue to adapt to what utilities offer them over the long haul.
Schneider and AutoGrid are now testing the technology with an unnamed East Coast municipal utility, using both Wiser’s internet gateway via home broadband, as well as smart meter communications networks, Kulp said.
Breaking the Barriers to Effective, and Popular, Home Energy Management
The project is also being managed as a turnkey solution for the utility in question, he added. Schneider does business with a lot of smaller utilities that may want a partner to manage their demand response and efficiency programs for them, rather than taking them in-house.
That, in turn, will be important for expanding residential demand response beyond its limited market uptake so far, he said. He wouldn’t give specific figures for how many homes it has hooked up with its Wiser technology, beyond saying that it remains in the thousands to date. But the firm's “own research leads us to believe that this may be a few hundred thousand or half a million homes per year in the next few years” in terms of North American market growth potential, Narayan said.
Schneider and AutoGrid will of course be competing against a host of providers in the field, including traditional players like Comverge, startups like Tendril, giant yet slow-moving entrants such as General Electric, and home security and automation players like Vivint, Verizon and AT&T.
They’re also not the only ones joining forces to bring emerging technology together with market might. Other such partnerships include the smart thermostat tag-teams of Opower and Honeywell and EcoFactor and Comcast, to name two noteworthy contenders.
Then, of course, on the big-data analytics front, AutoGrid faces a big potential challenger in C3 Energy, the well-funded Silicon Valley startup that's running energy management platforms that incorporate small commercial and residential customers for utilities including Pacific Gas & Electric, DTE Energy, Entergy, Northeast Utilities and Southern California Edison.
Schneider has also agreed to resell AutoGrid’s demand response optimization and management system (DROMS) to utilities and energy services providers across North America. That could open up the potential for the partners to incorporate equipment and control platforms outside Schneider’s Wiser line -- again, a task that AutoGrid has been working on as part of its research-grant-funded project with the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E program.
On the residential front, Schneider has also said that it’s working with demand response technology integrator Calico Energy Services and home security company Alarm.com on aspects of its Wiser business. However, when it comes to managing residential demand response, “AutoGrid is our core partner,” Kulp said -- a statement that leaves open the question of where Calico stands in future Wiser projects.