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SMUD, DERs and its customers: A customer-centric approach

I have seen the super-efficient, super-connected smart home of the future — and boy, is it exciting.

Consumers today face  a multitude of new options for managing their energy use at home — from smart thermostats to emerging technologies such as windows that allow you to adjust incoming levels of light. As these options and their potential to alter consumer energy spending grow, so must general public  awareness. Understanding these different options and their implications is not always straightforward, and quite frankly, it can be intimidating, even for energy nerds like me.

The Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) is a prime example of a utility that is meeting this challenge head-on. In the past few years, SMUD has launched intensive efforts to understand its customers’ adoption of renewable and other distributed energy resources (DERs)  and provide them with clear, hands-on information on their options.

SMUD’s demonstration EnergySmart Home allows consumers to check out the latest energy conservation and management technology and systems. (Photo courtesy of Nick Esch)

That commitment is obvious in SMUD’s EnergySmart Home, a demonstration “home” the utility has installed in its customer service center. With a demo kitchen, workspace, bathroom and even an outside cabana area, the installation contains  some of the latest home energy management technology available to consumers.

Take a virtual tour of SMUD’s EnergySmart Home here.

I was lucky enough to visit SMUD’s customer service center recently and spend some time checking out all the cool appliances and technology in the smart home — smart washers and dryers, a heat pump water heater, and those adjustable “electrochromatic” windows. But what really grabbed my attention — beside the solar and storage system, electric vehicle (EV) and two separate EV charging systems — was the home’s energy monitoring system.

Connected to all the appliances and gadgets in the home’s kitchen and living room, the monitor can show you both historical usage and real-time data. I wanted to see it in action, but flicking the efficient lighting on and off had very little effect. Looking for a more energy-intensive appliance, I opened the fridge and saw an immediate spike in electricity consumption when the compressor kicked in.

Another nice feature here, the house has two monitors, one set up at eye level for adults and one set lower for children.


A springboard for consumer outreach and education

This EnergySmart Home does not just sit idle. SMUD offers classes and events with titles such as: “Is Solar Right for You,” “Is an EV Right for You,” “Energy Efficiently Cooling Your Home” and “Top 10 Tips for Energy and Water Efficiency in Commercial Food Service.”

The goal here is to provide clear, accurate information to help consumers increase their knowledge about:

  • How intelligent appliances and devices, efficient lighting and home improvements can save energy and money
  • Which home energy options are available and which ones SMUD offers rebates for
  • How an in-home energy management system works and what technology options are available.

In total, SMUD has 45 classes and webinars scheduled through the end of this year. The audience for these classes varies from commercial to residential customers; and even more specialized topics are available, such as classes designed to train teachers on how to present energy information to their students.

“We want to inspire our community members to learn more about energy and technology, and help build a culture of innovation in Sacramento,“ said Erica Manuel, manager of community, economic development and education at SMUD. “We currently provide free workshops and online training for customers, students, teachers, energy professionals and more, and we plan to expand our offerings in the future.”

Such classes and the combination of energy choices displayed at the EnergySmart Home reminded me that DER impacts must be looked at both individually and in aggregate. While the impact of rooftop solar alone can increase distribution system ramping requirements (think the duck curve), the DER portfolio simulated in SMUD’s EnergySmart Home may actually decrease ramping and flatten the net load profile, as shown here in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Example Net Load Scenario in 2030: SMUD hourly load DER profile with 52% (maximum) DER penetration (Source: SMUD and Black & Veatch)

Consumers lead in DER adoption

Having a holistic view of the drivers and impacts of consumer adoption of DERs is becoming increasingly essential for SMUD. As illustrated in Figure 2, the utility has seen more and more of it’s customers invest in solar every year.

Figure 2: Solar adoption by residential customers in SMUD’s service territory, 2011-16. (Source: SEPA Utility Solar Database)

As the sixth largest municipal utility in the United States, SMUD estimates that its customers and third-party developers are spending $150-$200 million per year installing DERs in its service territory. According to a recent report from SEPA and Black & Veatch, that’s more than SMUD spends on utility-scale renewables. Presuming high levels of adoption for solar, EVs and unmanaged vehicle charging, the report projected the utility could see distribution upgrade costs at a cumulative figure of $50-$100 million or more through 2030. Although these costs may seem large in aggregate, they are relatively small on a per-unit basis, and they could be reduced in the future by emerging technologies, such as smart inverters.

In addition to its efforts to educate its customers through the EnergySmart Home, SMUD is also studying the emerging patterns of consumer adoption of DERs in its service territory and the associated impacts on the utility’s ability to provide reliable electricity to all.

As detailed in the SEPA-Black & Veatch report, as a result of studying customers’ adoption of DERs, SMUD now has a comprehensive customer database that will allow the utility to predict which neighborhoods will see higher levels of DERs. This visibility will enable SMUD to model potential DER impacts on the utility’s distribution and bulk power systems, as well as on the utility’s finances — and design new programs to optimize DER benefits for customers and the grid.

This targeted customer service approach will help customers to better understand new utility programs with innovative, program-associated characteristics such as rates designed to send price signals to encourage efficiency. In turn, SMUD is building solid customer-utility relations by connecting interested customers to programs that meet their interests and needs.

Building such mutually beneficial customer-utility relationships is, after all, a good measure of the utility’s preparedness for DER integration. The changes at SMUD seem to foreshadow the industry evolution occurring as utilities across the country refocus programs and services on their customers.

The SEPA and Black & Veatch study about SMUD,  “Beyond the Meter: Planning the Distributed Energy Future, Vol. II,” is available here.