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Difficulty Connecting: The bumpy road to smart home technology, and what utilities can do to smooth the way

With 20-plus years in the clean energy industry — working on advanced topics such as photovoltaic systems research, smart grid infrastructure and electric vehicles — I’m used to feeling somewhat technologically savvy. Recently, however, I found myself stymied by something I didn’t expect to be a problem — buying, connecting and aggregating smart energy devices within my home.

I had already done all of the basic energy efficiency upgrades, installing solar (although I plan to do more), better attic insulation, window film and duct sealing. I had also enrolled my family in our utility’s demand response programs for air conditioning, pool pumps and water heaters. But, given our recent acquisition of an electric vehicle (EV), and the amount of gaming devices and other types of electric loads in our household — thanks to our three, very tech-savvy sons — I was ready for the next level.

I should also add that we live in Florida, which means we do face extreme weather events and are concerned about system resiliency.

Electric Vehicle
A new electric vehicle was one more reason for SEPA’s Jen Szaro to add more energy management devices to her home.

With all that in mind, I went online to see if my electric utility offered any programs, incentives or recommendations related to smart home devices — which is where I hit my first stumbling block. As more customers seek information on clean, smart energy technologies, utilities are trying to position themselves as “trusted energy advisors” — a source for easily understood, balanced information that folks like myself are looking for. On that front, my utility has room for improvement.

The home section of the utility’s website had all of the usual suspects — information on home energy audits, calculators for setting thermostats and changing lighting, and a link to the energy management programs I was already enrolled in. I also found tutorials on how electricity works, a vampire load calculator, and information on renewable energy, home weatherization, purchasing an EV and calculating a person’s carbon footprint. All good stuff, but not what I needed.

I then called customer service to see if I had missed something on the web. Not only does my utility not have any programs for smart home energy devices, but my special “energy efficiency representative,” Dana, didn’t recommend them, or solar or energy storage devices.The payback for such investments, she said, was basically never.

She did, however, recommend I buy a diesel generator in lieu of solar plus storage to achieve my resiliency goals.

Home energy devices — such as controllable thermostats, smart lighting and plug control devices — are “neat, and perhaps convenient,” Dana said. “But you can save the same amount of energy (by) controlling these devices manually, so we don’t offer programs for those devices.”

She’s not wrong, but the fact is we don’t run around manually shutting off the air conditioning, lights and plug loads during a system peak — assuming, that is, that we know when the system peak is. Unless Dana is sending someone over to visit me and the kids during peak times, that approach isn’t going to get us or my utility very far. Finally, I asked her if — as my trusted energy advisor — she had any recommendations for key product features. She went silent for a few seconds and then suggested I try Google.

Despite the lack of utility enthusiasm for my choices, I moved ahead with my purchases. Based on advice from a few industry friends and experts, and a shopping list of connected home devices that seemed like a good fit for my family, I ended up with a cornucopia of smart home technology, including:

  • An energy hub, the heart of the system, to allow different devices to communicate with each other wirelessly, through a single app
  • A touchscreen dashboard, linked to the hub, to provide lighting control for our bedroom, as well as weather information and a summary of what all our connected devices are up to
  • A smart thermostat, to control our central heat and air conditioning (that can also connect to other devices and share weather information)
  • A smart hybrid water heater, to track power usage and allow for virtual control of our water heating system with remote on-off
  • A garage controller, to open the garage door remotely, turn garage lighting on and off, and track garage security
  • An LED lighting system, to control all our LED bulbs (most of our lighting) through the energy hub
  • An EV charger, to schedule EV charging and track EV power usage
  • Plug load controllers, to control all our plugged-in devices including a coffee maker, entertainment system, computers and gaming devices
  • A smart irrigation system, to control irrigation pumps and track rainfall to avoid unnecessary watering
  • And last, but not least, Amazon Echo with corresponding Amazon Dots for the boys’ rooms, which serve as our family intercom, music player, alarm clock and voice control for many of our smart devices

And then the fun began.

Despite my awesome Googling capabilities, I struggled to get all the components for my grand connected home scheme to communicate with each other.

Essential equipment: Szaro used the Amazon Echo to help all her devices to communicate with each other.

After a few hours and at least two glasses of red wine, I managed to get all of the devices linked to the hub or Alexa. Halfway through the third glass of wine, I realized that I could “see and control” my devices through the hub or Alexa apps, but I couldn’t aggregate the information in any way or track my total energy consumption.

What was the true value of having control of all of these devices if I couldn’t easily parse out the actual impact each device was having on my load? Even my 17-year-old son, who tried to take this task on as an extra credit assignment for his statistics class, threw up his hands in bitter frustration.

Without having additional information about weather impacts for prior and current years, it was nearly impossible to differentiate all of my loads and identify which investments were having the greatest impact on my bills. So, Dana had a point, and I had quite the collection of connected home apps.

A touchscreen allows Szaro to see and control her smart devices, but still doesn’t provide key data to help evaluate their impact.

During this time, we also had a few somewhat hilarious and unanticipated bumps in the road, like the time the garage door refused to open and the front door app became “unavailable” due to system downtime. Another time, the energy hub went haywire and started turning all the lights in our bedroom on and off. The ghost in the machine felt very real that evening.

That experience triggered anxiety about cybersecurity. Did we get hacked? Could we be hacked? Who might be seeing our data? Aside from cost and the lack of information, these questions were my next biggest concern.

Utilities will face these same issues as they move toward addressing the smart home market. How do you ensure the data is flowing, but safe? How do you effectively aggregate this vital information to make it more valuable to both the customer and the grid?

 

Customer-grid solutions

While looking for some of these answers and thinking about what my utility could have done better, I turned to my friend and Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) board member Seth Frader-Thompson, President and Co-founder of EnergyHub. Helping utilities implement customer-friendly energy efficiency and demand response programs is what he and his company do.

“Utilities understand that consumers are buying grid-valuable devices, such as connected thermostats, water heaters, batteries, and electric vehicles more than ever before,” Seth said. “Now, utilities need to make it easy and worthwhile for customers to give the utility access to those devices in order to manage the grid.”

Seth laid out a few simple strategies for utilities, which would have made my experience much better. While I was gung-ho to turn my house into a smart home, a lot of people simply buy connected thermostats and other devices because they’re easy to control with apps, and they might be able to save some money on utility bills.

Get the word out. Unlike me, the majority of consumers may not seek out advanced energy management technologies and programs. But broad adoption is needed to get these technologies to scale and reduce their costs. Whether through targeted emails, social media and search advertising, bill inserts or even roadside billboards, utilities need to get the programs in front of the majority of their customers.

Make it easy. People don’t want to go through a bunch of steps to do their utility a favor (even if they’re getting a financial incentive), so don’t ask too much of them. For example, how many people can reel off their utility account number? Few if any. Utilities should adopt other means of verification when enrolling potential program customers. Programs that do not ask for an account number during sign up can see significantly higher enrollment rates. In addition, customer representatives must be trained so they are well informed about these program offerings and encourage participant enrollment.

Give customers choices. Additionally, utilities should design their programs to give customers straightforward access to a wide range of options — both in device class and brand name. A few utilities — for example, Georgia Power, Commonwealth Edison and Xcel Energy — have launched e-commerce marketplace sites for these types of products and link them directly to their rebate or incentive programs. The customer gets a one-stop, seamless enrollment experience, and the utility, an improved reputation as a true “trusted energy advisor.”

Collaborate. Many utilities are starting to realize that connecting to every class of connected device and the multiple brands per class can be challenging and costly. That’s a major part of the value that solution providers such as EnergyHub and similar companies can bring to utilities. Working with these providers can give utilities instant access to multiple brands of every class of connected device, making it easier to ramp up a program that engages customers and allows better grid management.

When it comes to the cybersecurity of these devices, utilities and solution providers are laser focused on ensuring that the millions of data points containing personally identifiable information, including utility account numbers, are managed in a way that adheres to strict cybersecurity standards. New communication architecture protocols, such as Open Field Message Bus (OpenFMB), have the potential to make data management in this space even more secure and efficient in the future.

The next generation of energy customers will want to be even more connected than we are today, demanding greater levels of expediency, choice and interoperability from their service providers. As a mother of three of them, I can assure you, utilities better have an app for all of that. Even my 5-year-old can order an Uber and call up his favorite Youtube video without batting an eyelash.

While many utilities are making efforts to better understand these evolving customer needs, the growing demand for digital access and control could prove to be a double-edged sword — holding either the promise for new revenue opportunities or the threat of irrelevance.

The connected family: The Szaros (from left to right) Adam, Wyatt, Jen, Kaleb, and Jonah. Photo courtesy of Jennifer Szaro.

In summary, the road to the connected home is still in need of some serious paving. Utilities can and should play a critical and leading role in that process. If utilities choose not to take the lead, others such as third-party software and hardware providers may jump at the chance to smooth the way. The hope is that utilities and third parties will opt to work together collaboratively to develop optimal solutions that reduce duplication of effort and provide benefits for customers and the grid.

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