For utilities that are looking to control their customers’ home energy use during peak hours with smart meters and appliances, there can be a steep learning curve. The utility wants to use communication networks and software to power down certain energy-hogging actions during peak times (air conditioners) but at the same time keep customers happy and comfortable. As John Morrell, vice president of product marketing for Aleri, a software company that has been working with Duke Energy on smart home pilot trials, put it in a call with us this week: “Some of the data that is being generated in these pilots, utilities have never seen before. It can require a lot of adjustment.”
Aleri, a decade-old firm that builds infrastructure network software, and Integral Analytics, a 7-year-old firm that builds software applications, worked with Duke on a 30-home trial last summer in Cincinnati and their combined software was responsible for processing the energy data in real time. Duke actually introduced the companies to one another a year ago, which Morrell calls “a match made in heaven.” The companies’ software processes the information generated in a smart energy home program but also takes the pilot to the next (read: smarter) level, with the ability to optimize the system around customer behavior and comfort or drill into how much an individual customer’s energy use influences the strain on the greater power grid.
In the Cincinnati trial, Aleri and Integral Analytic’s software found that if during peak times the utility used the natural cycles of air conditioning systems (that power off and on) to coincide with the power management of a customer’s smart air conditioning system, then the customer noticed the impact of the demand response program less. By using a dispatch algorithm, they can program the system to act smarter, explained Michael Ozog, vice president of economic evaluation at Integral Analytics, and that “keeps the customer more comfortable.”
This summer Duke Energy is using Aleri and Integral Analytics’ software to run a smart energy trial in 100-plus homes in Charlotte, N. C. Earlier this year North Carolina regulators approved Duke to start the trial and Ozog says gear is already being installed and the pilot will soon be under way.
The Charlotte trial is larger and more complex than the Cincinnati one: It will include a utility-grade solar photovoltaic system attached to a substation, and a battery for energy storage (zinc bromide). The companies’ software will not only have to manage the energy data from the home devices but will examine how to use energy storage and solar to add more clean power but keep the grid load stable. While utilities and lawmakers are paying an increasing amount of attention to adding energy storage to the power grid as a way to address the variable availability of renewables (the sun shines and the wind blows only at certain times of the day), the Charlotte trial is groundbreaking in that it is examining how that can be managed alongside demand response.
The software companies will also be using their tools to see how much of an effect individual customers have on the power grid. The feeder line and transformer in a neighborhood of the Charlotte trial has been particularly overstressed, said Ozog, and by targeting just those customers in that area we can see how important it is to focus demand-response programs. In addition, the software will be used to test out using solar panels for “islanding,” or providing power for a neighborhood from a distributed source while central power is out.
Energy management is just a small part of Aleri and Integral Analytics’ businesses, but it’s one of the fastest growing. The market itself is undergoing rapid growth as billions in stimulus funds are being injected into the smart grid. Networking software giants like Cisco, web firms from Google to Microsoft, and fast-growing startups like Silver Spring Networks are all building software to add intelligence to the power grid.