Utility combines real-time reporting of energy use with smart home technology, paving the way for utilities to lead the way in the future of connected home
ENERGY STAR is the gold standard for energy efficiency and is most frequently awarded to best-of-breed products that have demonstrated energy reduction. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and ENERGY STAR stakeholders saw an opportunity to mitigate growing consumption and bring a focus on energy savings opportunities to the smart home market through development of ENERGY STAR certification criteria. The strategy was to leverage the powerful ENERGY STAR brand and partnership to guide smart home systems toward readily achievable energy savings in the near term while working toward the future of a smart home ecosystem capable of acting as a single touchpoint for consumers and utilities to manage energy consumption.
Baltimore Gas and Electric’s (BGE) certification of the first smart home energy management solution breaks numerous barriers, including demonstrating that utilities and energy companies have an active role to play in commercial solutions development.
In March 2020, when the world was mostly shutting down due to COVID-19, BGE launched its Connected Home and Small Business Demonstration (CHBD), also known as Connected Annapolis. The purpose of the Demonstration was to understand the role connected customers played within a connected community. More specifically, the utility wanted to explore the combined impact of smart home technology and education on energy reduction. The technology demonstration offered exclusively in Annapolis, MD (BGE service territory), allowed four user groups to receive a combination of smart home devices as well as support from a robust education and outreach program designed to empower customers to take control of their energy use through SHEMS technology. The four user groups were intentional so that the utility could identify potential differences and opportunities in engaging with each kind of customer: Early Adopter, Small Business, Low Income and Senior.
Demonstration participants received a package in the mail that was designed for their user group. These devices were a combination of a z-wave hub, instructions to download the compatible app, door and window sensors, motion sensors, water leak detectors, smart plugs and Energy Star-certified lighting. Initially, participants received a coupon for a free installation of a smart thermostat when the climate was safe again for installers to enter homes. Later in the Demonstration, when installation restrictions were lifted, participants could call and schedule this free installation at their convenience. All groups except the small business group received an Amazon Dot, and the Senior group had the added benefit of receiving a tablet.
Because of the unexpected pandemic, BGE had originally designed the program to have more in-person support and training; yet the new environment brought about a unique opportunity to engage with customers remotely. It made the emphasis on education and technical support that much more important. The Connected Annapolis team developed an online community whereby participants could watch video tutorials, download step-by-step instructions, learn about the technology and contact program managers for additional help. Zoom training also became a regular part of the program.
The ENERGY STAR team at the EPA learned about Connected Annapolis through its Smart Home Energy Management Systems working group (SHEMS). In discussions between EPA and the BGE Connected Annapolis Team, it became apparent that there was a unique opportunity to demonstrate real kWh reduction because of the way the program was conducting its own internal analyses leveraging AMI data. The 15-minute interval data became an important baseline for measurement and the Connected Annapolis team analyzed it three years before the technology deployment as well as the 12-month period after. To better correlate reduction to smart home device usage, the Connected Annapolis team was able to work with the technology vendor to collect real-time usage information for the different devices in the home. This data included thermostat adjustments, frequency of use of lighting and the additional smart devices as well as specific information about home/away programming and pre-configured room setups.
Integrating technology with utility programs
One of the things BGE was keenly interested in was the integration of smart home technology solutions with other existing energy efficiency programs. As a result, the Demonstration made an effort to market to and sign-up participants for the utility’s demand response program, Connected Rewards. Because the utility was moving towards a “Bring Your Own Device” (BYOD) model, the Connected Annapolis team used thermostats that were compatible with the program. By doing this, the team was able to fulfill additional EPA requirements of ENERGY STAR certification including, demand-side events and targeted communications notifications, available by both text and email.
In addition to the demand response program, the Connected Annapolis team at BGE also utilized programs designed for small business thermostats and first-time smart thermostat residential customers.
The role of utilities in SHEMS
BGE was excited to see how it could leverage its AMI network in the smart home demonstration, so designing measurement criteria around energy reduction and analysis through AMI data was critical from the start. In addition, participants were encouraged to view their data and understand energy patterns on BGE’s My Account.
“BGE is proud to be a leader in showing how our industry can optimize AMI network investments and smart technology to provide our customers with cutting-edge tools that allow a greater degree of control over their energy usage and costs,” said Alex Núñez, BGE senior vice president of Strategy & Regulatory Affairs
EPA was excited to see the successful deployment of ENERGY STAR-certified SHEMS through careful delivery of a program that provided valuable insights into small businesses, aging in place and low-income participant segments. “In the Connected Annapolis pilot, we saw how smart home can successfully bridge the gap between the utility goals and consumer interests with key target audiences. We were pleased to see that the systems deployed in the pilot, while supported by substantial virtual training, successfully delivered both consumer amenity and savings,” said Taylor Jantz-Sell, SHEMS Program Manager, EPA.
This use of AMI data led to an ongoing dialogue between BGE and EPA about the role of utilities in collecting and analyzing the usage data. It is important to note that Connected Annapolis was an opt-in program where customers received free technology in exchange for making their usage data available to BGE. Personal data was not shared with the EPA, and information was provided in aggregate and by average, with outlier information removed from the analysis.
It was important that BGE communicate to the industry that it was not focused on collecting or sharing personal data information of its customers. Rather, the utility was focused on understanding how and why people might benefit from such technology.
More importantly, the Connected Annapolis team was looking at aggregate data among users and sub-segments of the user groups to determine patterns and trends. Individual customer usage was looked at in conjunction with device usage, but this was reported anonymously to all stakeholders. No individual customer information was shared for privacy reasons.
Furthermore, the Connected Annapolis team conducted significant qualitative research to help put the data story further together.
Proving energy reduction and the unique role of the utility
Throughout the process of certification with the EPA it became more apparent that the utility was uniquely positioned to provide proof of energy reduction of the SHEMS devices in a way that, perhaps, product manufacturers had been struggling. As owners of the AMI data, utilities can produce evidence of energy reduction when coupled with the specific device usage information. In addition, as owners of many energy efficiency programs like demand response, the utility can conduct events that enable customers to save automatically through the SHEMS devices and subsequently demonstrate results through kWh and GHG reductions.
BGE has a long history of innovating through advanced technologies, so when the opportunity to empower customers through smart home technology arose, it moved forward in trying to really understand the motivations for such technology use and the potential long-term impact of providing these devices to its customers. In particular, it also wanted to better explore the impact of these devices on lower-income customers who may not otherwise be motivated or able to spend more money on smart devices in the home. It turned out that this segment of participants yielded strong results, particularly during the summer high bill months.
The ENERGY STAR certification process really allowed BGE to push the sustainability narrative forward. The Connected Annapolis team translated its energy reduction to greenhouse gas emissions helping bridge the objectives of both DOE and EPA. By focusing on customers and behavior instead of device specifications, the Connected Annapolis initiative brought home the power of why, and the critical importance of engaging with customers to educate and empower them.
Customer feedback was an important part of the Demonstration. Highlights of that feedback include:
- An interest from participants to purchase more smart devices to add to their setup.
- Looking to the utility as an advisor in smart energy technology solutions.
- Many customers who initially doubted their ability to engage with the technology, thrived with it.
- Many customers indicated a lack of awareness and understanding of smart home technology — why to purchase it, how to use it, etc.
- Many customers believed that if the utility had not offered this technology to them, they would not have purchased it on their own. Education played an important part in the process.
Some of the joint learnings between EPA and BGE focused on the critical ingredient of AMI data and the unique role utilities had in utilizing SHEMS for energy reduction. While utilities may not be the long-term distributor of such technology, it was clear that there is an important role to play in the deployment of these technologies for energy reduction specifically.
As utilities continue to innovate and expand energy efficiency programs as well as develop consumer marketplaces and BYOD programs, smart home technology is clearly an important piece of the future of energy management.
“We are proud to align technology and the needs of our customers with our Path to Clean goal to achieve net-zero operational emissions by 2050. As we push toward this goal, we will continue to experiment with new technologies, offerings and platforms to empower our customers as they seek to improve their energy efficiency and help to address the climate goal, added Nunez.”
This article originally appeared in Electric Energy T&D Magazine, Quarterly Issue 3, 2022 – Volume 25. To read original article, click here.