Energate has hit the trifecta in smart grid-to-home energy connectivity: smart meters, old-school one-way radio networks, and now, broadband to the home.
On Friday, the Ottawa-based startup announced it was working on a demand response rollout -- not a pilot, but a commercial rollout -- with utilities in Canada’s Ontario province, with the city of Peterborough (pop. 74,898) as a first client. It's the first mass DR rollout that uses homeowners’ existing broadband internet connections, rather than radios, pagers or smart meters, to connect to devices in the home that can help manage province-wide peak loads.
Energate is providing devices like smart thermostats, load control switches for water heaters and pool pumps, and home displays to track energy use in partnership with Rodan Energy, the province's biggest demand response aggregator. It's also providing its Consumer Connected Demand Response platform and its CORE middleware to Rodan, which is targeting utilities beyond Peterborough. In fact, as part of a province-wide program meant to get customers to turn over control of key household loads to their utility in exchange for rebates and energy savings, Energate has a target market of more than 4 million customers across the province, said CEO Niraj Bhargavi.
Ontario’s program represents an “integration of a number of the concepts the industry has been looking at: direct load control, time-of-use pricing, and consumer engagement,” Bhargavi said in an interview. Of course, that's what contenders like Tendril, Energy Hub, iControl, EcoFactor, Honeywell, Schneider Electric, General Electric, Radio Thermostat, Verizon and others are also promising, though we can take Google PowerMeter and Microsoft Hohm off the list. What's different in Ontario?
First of all, Ontario’s program actually gives utilities direct control over household loads like air conditioners and water heaters, only using broadband connections to a home network, rather than the old-fashioned method of turning them off via radio and pager signals, Bhargavi said. In exchange, the utilities offer rebates or other cash rewards, methods which have netted millions of participants, but are expensive and limited in scope.
At the same time, Ontario is among the first regions in the world to push all its residential customers onto a time-of-use power pricing scheme that charges them more on weekday afternoons and early evening peak times than on off-peak nights and weekends, he noted. The hope is that consumers will choose to use less energy during expensive peak times, helping utilities avoid building new power plants.
That gives utilities an incentive to push connectivity to homes to do things like deliver pricing alerts, offer energy efficiency tips or market home energy audits -- all things most utilities do via snail mail nowadays.
Energate is a big player in real-world demand response projects. It’s working with Oklahoma Gas & Electric and Silver Spring Networks on the country’s first wide-scale deployment of utility-linked smart thermostats in homes. OG&E wants 50,000 customers to sign up for pricing programs that give them cheap energy during off-peak hours in exchange for punishingly high rates at peak demand times. Offering them a communications link with the utility to manage it can actually cut energy bills by 30 percent to 50 percent, according to pilot project results.
In OG&E’s case, that communications link is the smart meter, which carries a ZigBee radio inside it that communicates with Energate’s smart thermostats in the home. That’s how most North American utilities have been planning to connect to home area network (HAN) technology they’ve been promising as an end result of smart meter deployments.
Of course, most meters only “talk” to the utility about every hour or so, and most utilities take a day to process the data, making the whole-home usage data you can look up on utility websites a day old at least. OG&E is among the first to actually deliver smart meter-based connectivity to the home, though utilities in California and Texas, among other states, are under the gun to start doing so.
There’s a catch in the case of Ontario, however: most of the smart meters deployed there don't have ZigBee radios, said Louis Szablya, Energate’s VP of marketing. That means that the utilities that pick up the province-wide program have to find alternative ways to reach homeowners -- and broadband was a natural avenue.
Because not all Ontario residents have broadband, Energate is also providing a one-way option, using the classic model of radio-controlled load switches that turn off HVAC or pool pumps. Utilities have to serve all their customers, not just those with high-speed internet access. For homes that don't have smart meters to measure whole-home power, Energate is working with a partner it intends to announce next week, which supplies a sensor device that can read old-fashioned meters and feed the data to the home network, Szablya said.
Energate isn’t the first company to use broadband to link homes and smart grid -- in fact, a lot of today’s home area network trials depend on it. Tendril’s HAN pilot with San Diego Gas & Electric is using broadband for now, and SDG&E hasn’t said just when it will turn on their ZigBee meter-to-home capabilities.
Pilots and studies tend to show that more connectivity and access to real-time data yields bigger energy savings -- but again, those are only pilot projects. Energate piloted its own broadband-to-home system in four Ontario cities from 2009 to 2010, and showed that involved homeowners could shave 30 percent from their utility bills, which is similar to results it got with Silver Spring in Oklahoma.
Will broadband utility-to-home communications take off? Cisco, IBM, Microsoft and other IT giants are exploring whole “smart city” architectures dependent on the concept of universal broadband. But the real world includes far-off farm houses, low-income apartment blocks, mission-critical emergency response agencies and a lot of everyday power users, all with a universal right to reliable power. Companies that want to help utilities crack anything other than the (rich) early adopter market will have to find a way to serve all those customers to make it happen.