COVID-19, smart meters and new “first responders” on the grid

By Jeff Hendler, CEO, Logical Buildings

In the early days of lockdowns from the coronavirus pandemic, there was an initial perception of one small silver lining: lower carbon emitting pollution as society ground to a halt and much of industry went on pause. To a certain extent, this did occur. Much ado was made about Los Angeles’ skyline, which was abnormally smog-less after shelter-in-place went into effect, and overall energy consumption across the United States did initially decline significantly.

But this has only been true up to a point because the virus and the attendant lockdown also created unprecedented energy challenges — challenges that forced utilities like ConEd to utilize previously untapped methods to preserve the reliability of their grids. And the success ConEd had in overcoming these challenges is an important lesson for other utilities seeking to maintain grid stability in the years ahead.

In a typical year, the most challenging times for grid management are hot summer afternoons. In a city like New York, most summer days see large office buildings and entertainment venues blasting air conditioning. When demand climbs above capacity, one of three things will occur: the utility has to increase supply, reduce demand or experience blackouts.

Increasing supply is sometimes viable, but rarely desirable, as it generally requires temporarily restarting the highest carbon-emitting and air-polluting power plants. Blackouts, too, are obviously not ideal. Clearly, the best way to manage a grid on hot summer days is by reducing peak demand behind each meter. And the gatekeepers who manage this demand reduction are the major consumers: such as large office buildings.

When ConEd sees usage spiking, it puts out a distress call to properties in high-demand areas. Those aggregated buildings that comply by reducing energy demand are relied upon as a Virtual Power Plant and rewarded financially for helping to preserve the grid’s ability to deliver electricity.

But amid the pandemic and ensuing work-from-home phenomenon, the typical grid response mechanism was not an option. Since people are not congregating in office towers and commercial districts in large numbers, energy use is not being concentrated in the usual places. While historically high demand energy use in Manhattan was markedly down, the pandemic power redistribution shifted demand peaks to the outer boroughs and suburbs at unprecedented levels. In fact, this COVID-19-driven redistribution of power yielded a higher energy peak in summer 2020 than summer 2019.

When spikes occurred in recent years, all key stakeholders knew the drill; property managers in Manhattan office buildings received a distress call and lowered energy use at the appropriate times. But this year, no demand response calls occurred in Manhattan — they all took place in the outer boroughs and suburbs. In 2020, successful grid management would require the participation of a new cast of characters, including individual residents of the outer boroughs. Fortunately, ConEd was one of the relatively few utilities equipped to facilitate residential demand response (DR).

One of the keys to a successful DR effort is access, measurement, and verification of utility interval meter data. Since 2015, ConEd has rolled out several million smart meters to its residential and small commercial customers in the New York region through its Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) initiative. These smart meters track energy usage in 15-minute increments — granular data that is a key prerequisite for implementing an effective demand response program.  

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With widespread AMI in place, when the virus hit and outer borough and suburban energy use started spiking, residential DR was finally an option in the country’s largest electricity market. On the hottest days of this summer — six straight days at one point — ConEd made DR calls in various neighborhoods in Brooklyn, Queens and the suburbs, and it was multifamily property managers and single-family homeowners who were the new grid “First Responders” who successfully reduced peak demand precisely when needed to enhance reliability of the local electric network. 

While some multifamily property managers had participated in limited DR calls in the past, it is particularly noteworthy that, for the very first time, individual households were able to participate. They earned money directly through curbing energy use, as a result of “GridRewards,” a program and mobile application developed by Logical Buildings that can be utilized for free by any Con Edison or Orange & Rockland utility account holder.

Nonprofit community choice aggregator Sustainable Westchester proactively offers GridRewards to its 120,000+ members in Westchester County. Leveraging the data collected by the smart meters, an app for homeowners provides simple, targeted suggestions to help each energy user reduce demand during DR calls.

By complying with the app’s suggestions — e.g. raising a temperature set point by two degrees for a few hours or running a dishwasher or washing machine on a high-peak day at 9 p.m. instead of 5 p.m. — individuals were able to earn cash rewards while providing the grid with relief, as well as track each individual’s contribution towards reducing their respective carbon footprint.

The precedent this sets is noteworthy. Looking five or ten years down the road, there is little question that we are moving toward a more distributed energy future. Yet DR, as a grid stabilizing resource, has historically been associated almost entirely with a very small number of large power users. The successful implementation of GridRewards during peak energy events has demonstrated the democratization of DR resources, enabling new grid First Responders from residential and small business users to provide stability of the grid in years to come. For utilities whose small energy users are equipped with AMI meters, the potential for demand management is encouraging news – proven during these pandemic times.   

It should also be noted that, for the consumer, the case for DR is airtight. A program like GridRewards is entirely free and responding to any DR call is a matter of their own discretion. Yet the rewards are substantial; in addition to making individual contributions to stabilize the grid for themselves and their neighbors during times of need, as well as lowering carbon emissions for the greater good of society,  some consumers earn up to a third of their annual energy costs in rewards!

As well as lowering carbon emissions for the greater good of society,  some consumers earn up to a third of their annual energy costs in rewards

With the technology developed and households proving to be responsive, proliferation of this program is predicated on the availability of smart meters. While most utilities have begun deploying them across their coverage area, others are late to the game. But for the laggards, after the summer with the most distributed energy ever recorded, there is only one question: If not now, when?

About the Author

Jeff Hendler serves as Co-Founder, President, and Chief Executive Officer of Energy Technology Savings Inc., DBA Logical Buildings. Jeff represents Logical Buildings as Innovation Member of the Smart Cities Counsel and Board Member of Green Button Alliance. He also serves on the executive committee of the National Energy Marketers Association, as their Smart Grid Committee Chairman. In addition he is an active voting member of the NYISO and PJM wholesale power grids. He also represents ETS as a member of the Consumer Electronics Association, NY Battery Energy Storage, and Clean Energy Business Network.

Jeff is an acting advisor/member of the Wharton Energy Network, and graduate of the Wharton School of Business.

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