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Interview: Discussing the evolution of DERs on Smart Grid Today

EnergyHub Team

February 12, 2020

Smart Grid Today is the go-to news source for utility practitioners to keep up with macro trends and breaking news. Editor Sam Spencer brings over a decade of experience to his industry analysis.

On his podcast, Spencer conducts in-depth interviews with individuals working on the frontline of defining today’s smart grid. Our VP of Business Development, Matt Johnson, recently joined the podcast to share his vision for the role of DERs in the smart grid alongside lessons learned from implementing programs with over 45 utilities.

You can listen to the full interview on the podcast or read on for selected excerpts.

Listen to the interview

The following selections have been edited for clarity. 

How has EnergyHub evolved in response to adapting utility priorities?

Most folks who were familiar with EnergyHub a couple years ago knew us primarily as a company that sold software to utilities for them to get value from connected thermostats. We’re still the leading provider of those services to utilities in the United States today.

Now, there are more and more types of connected devices beginning to be installed at the edge of the grid. So you look at smart inverters, the growth in electric vehicles, and the growth in residential batteries. There are assets at the edge of the grid that can potentially be disruptive to utilities but can also be an asset. Our utility clients have come to us and said, “You’re managing thermostats as a distributed resource class. Can you help us with these other assets?”

National Grid was a great example of that. We started working with them on thermostats, and they asked if we can expand to batteries. We’ve been working with them on their Bring Your Own Battery program called Connected Solutions for a few years, which recently won an Energy Storage North America award. We continue to be on the cutting edge of helping utilities manage these complex grid edge issues as more of these devices come online.

What drives large utilities to take the step to go beyond managing thermostats?

We work with over 45 utilities today. Whether you look at a utility like National Grid who is very much innovating on customer-owned devices behind the meter, or Arizona Public Service who is looking to solve a lot of complex challenges on renewables using a multi-DER portfolio, there are a lot of utilities who are embracing the opportunity and the potential these devices offer. Real-time dispatch and real-time data offer the potential for exciting new grid services.

What is the state of consumer device adoption and how does it impact DER programs?

Utility incentives drive adoption. But customers are buying batteries, connected thermostats, and electric vehicles for their own value proposition outside of whatever service they can provide for the utility.

We have been fortunate in that we have a well-honed deployment model. We’ve done that in partnership with our device ecosystem partners. We work out the best way to create a great customer experience and deliver value and grid services to utilities in a sustainable way. We’re not waiting for customers. The customers are there, and we’re deploying with them today.

On working effectively for shared success with utility clients…

For us, it’s about finding good partnerships with utilities. Both APS and National Grid are our clients, but they’re partners too. They’re willing to find creative solutions. They’re willing to have a dialogue and talk to other parties because there isn’t a right answer yet. That is what makes it fun – that we’re all trying to come up with solutions. We’ve spent years building up to this moment, and the moment is here. That’s an exciting thing to see.

What new information are utilities receiving when they branch out beyond thermostats?

Whether it’s with water heaters or electric vehicles, you are getting visibility into an area where nobody really had an idea of what the load profile or customer behavior was before. Now that you’re getting this real-time data, everyone is learning a lot. The utility is learning about hot water usage patterns and when people are charging electric vehicles. That makes a difference for program design, for utilities who are figuring out ways to manage new loads and use them to support the grid.

How will DERs provide utilities with more control than they’ve ever had in ways that they never had?

The way the future grid is expected to operate, most utilities are expected to deploy an ADMS system that monitors and tracks the health of the grid and identifies problem spots. That would interact with a DERMS, which is tracking assets at the edge of the grid that can respond to address those problems.

An ADMS might say, “I need 10 megawatts on this feeder.” A DERMS, through artificial intelligence, can understand the capabilities and forecast the flexibility of assets on the edge of the grid. It will deploy a combination of batteries and thermostats to meet that particular need.

How do new advances in technology such as artificial intelligence help utilities?

Artificial intelligence is really what makes this happen. The level of sophistication of platforms like ours has changed so much that these capabilities weren’t possible even a few years ago. It offers utilities the chance to go for these decarbonization goals and push renewables out there in a way that wasn’t possible before.

We have a full-time analytics and grid services team that focuses on using artificial intelligence to control assets. A lot of it starts with forecasting and understanding what an asset is capable of. We can build home-level forecasts of the thermo-dynamic envelope of a house to understand how it’s going to respond to a thermostat demand response event. We can understand the state of charge of a residential battery. You build that understanding on an individual level. Then you aggregate that information, take it into your platform, and run scenario analysis to look at different permutations that might happen with that type of asset over time. When you get a request from a utility for a specific type of resource, that analysis allows the platform to deliver the best possible outcome to the utility at any given time.

With the rise of devices like EVs and renewable generation, will utilities need to generate more energy, less energy, or just be smarter about how they use it?

As more and more renewables come on line, as utilities publish decarbonization goals, that inevitably requires more sophisticated control of loads. That’s something that only a DERMS can do. A DERMS has the intelligence to decide when to dispatch a resource, when to curtail a load, and what mix of DERs should be managed at any particular time and any point of the grid.

This is not only to balance supply and demand, but also to maintain the health of the grid, whether it’s voltage or frequency or any other number of factors that keep the grid operating properly. The growth of renewables creates a lot of changes to the way utilities are used to operating the grid. A platform like EnergyHub is going to be essential for every utility in the country.

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