Texas has some serious grid reliability issues. But that’s not the reason that energy retailer Reliant is offering its latest program to large commercial clients.
Reliant, owned by NRG Energy, will offer ThinkEco’s smart plug (known as a "modlet") to help manage plug loads in offices. Retailers are increasingly looking for unique offerings to attract and retain customers, especially large ones.
Many other hardware offerings, such as smart thermostats for residential customers, are given away for free or at low cost to entice people into participating in demand response programs. But the partnership with ThinkEco is not part of commercial demand response programs. Instead, it's a tool Reliant can use to lure and hold on to commercial customers for energy management.
“The Smart Outlet initiative with ThinkEco gives business customers more control to lower their usage and a better understanding of their larger energy footprint,” Elizabeth Killinger, retail regional president at NRG, said in a statement. “The Smart Outlet reflects our commitment to exploring creative energy solutions to help companies reach sustainability goals and manage costs.”
For ThinkEco, it’s the first utility deal specifically for commercial clients. Many of its previous utility partnerships have focused on using modlets to control residential load, with a particular focus on window air conditioners.
ThinkEco has long had eyes for the commercial market, even though most of its work has been with residential units. Ideally, its software would be embedded in large office equipment, such as computers, printers, copiers and water coolers. Jun Shimada, president and CTO of ThinkEco, told Greentech Media last year that it did research with more than 125 companies and found that most could stand to turn these types of appliances off about 50 percent of the time.
The cloud-based modlet can save companies up to 30 percent of the energy of whatever is plugged into it, according to ThinkEco. The smart plugs essentially learn the patterns of use and then can be switched off or put to sleep when devices aren’t in use. Although plug load isn’t as large as heating and cooling, it is the fastest growing portion of electricity use in buildings and makes up more than a quarter of average office electricity use.
Reliant is only offering the smart plug to customers with peak usage of more than 1 megawatt, but some of the largest opportunities for easy-to-install, low-cost hardware like the modlet could be small and medium-sized commercial buildings.
In Texas, residential and small business loads make up the bulk of peak demand when air conditioners are running full-blast in the summertime. Across the country, utilities are looking at the vast small-commercial market as a relatively untapped sector for energy efficiency programs.
For now, Reliant is using ThinkEco to gun for the big guys. But if it can find success helping to curb plug load power draws in big office buildings, it might then be ready to trickle the technology down to the little guys.