Commentary: Eclipse can educate consumers on energy use

Soon the eyes of an estimated 7.4 million people wearing special-purpose solar filters will look skyward on the upcoming Aug. 21 solar eclipse when the moon completely blocks the sun across an unusually wide 70-mile corridor of the United States. States in the path of the solar eclipse have been assiduously planning for the event, perhaps none more so than California, which on some days leans on solar to meet 40 percent of total energy demand.

The state has been active in messaging to Californians what they can do to reduce reliance on expensive and inefficient natural gas peaking power plants when the eclipse causes an estimated loss of 4.194 megawatts (MW) of large scale solar electricity.

High impact events like the solar eclipse begs a broader set of questions: How should we address the impact of a changing climate creating peak load events that utilities and others throughout the energy ecosystem must manage?  What should individuals understand in order to boost their energy efficiency and support grid stability?

Technological innovation, improved consumer energy education and intelligent demand response programs all play a role in enhancing grid reliability and energy efficiency.

The role of technology and data for engagement

For consumers, innovation in the area of energy efficiency can address a very real and growing pain point; energy costs eat between 5 and 22 percent of families’ total after-tax income in the U.S., with the poorest Americans, or 25 million households, paying the highest of that range. And WalletHub’s latest analysis of total monthly energy bills in each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia finds that in many states the utility costs for electricity, natural gas, motor fuel and home heating oil exceeds $300 per month.

A first step in ensuring technology can improve our energy efficiency is understanding what the top energy-consuming appliances in most homes are. Cooling/heating systems consume 47 percent of home energy, followed by a water heater at 14 percent and washer/dryer at 13 percent.

In addition to the frequency of use of such energy hogs, the time of day that such appliances are used is also key to minimizing their impact on the power grid. Limiting use to such devices to times of low demand of after 9 p.m. and before 5 p.m. can help cut energy bills by restricting the need to use the most expensive, carbon intensive forms of power generation during times of peak demand.

Technological advances now put consumers in a position to view, in real-time, the energy consumption, costs, and health of their home devices and appliances. Given that more than 100 million U.S. households that do not have a single smart home device, new behind-the-meter sensors can generate high resolution energy usage data which can be converted into meaningful energy usage and diagnostic data on the home. Access to this data can have a meaningful and lasting impact: HVACs alone consume on average, approximately half the energy of the home and whose malfunctioning can mean unplanned and significant repair costs.

The need to manage peak demand

To manage the impact of a rapidly evolving global climate and keep customers comfortable, utilities must extend beyond basic on/off demand response to deliver “intelligent demand response.”  This starts with the ability to forecast peak load and then implementing demand response programs that reduce consumer energy consumption during peak use periods while minimizing homeowner discomfort.

Integrated Distributed Energy Resource (iDER) systems extend beyond traditional Demand Response programs by integrating connected Internet of Things (IoT) devices with energy and weather data to deliver significant energy efficiency and demand response results through the optimization of HVAC systems, appliances and other devices.

The key here is integrating as many connected devices in the home as possible – not just thermostats but washer and dryers, hot water heaters and even pool pumps – and then leveraging the power of big data analytics to logically and thoughtfully shave the peak.

Demand response and energy efficiency programs require consistent and effective consumer engagement combined with automated EE strategies. The eclipse affords an opportunity to educate consumers on their energy use, and connection both to how we manage our natural resources and our costs.

Bob Marshall is CEO of Oakland-based Whisker Labs, which develops energy sensing and software technology. 

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