Nifty smart grid end use devices. But are they transactive?

Lynne Kiesling

The smart grid technology space is growing. Nifty, clever, useful devices proliferate in the market, whether your interests lie in remote sensing and monitoring in the wires, in distribution automation (which is actually sexier than it sounds!), or in intelligent end-use devices and building automation.

Many of the end use devices, especially for residential customers, focus on providing consumers with information about their electricity consumption. Some even get granular and provide information at the appliance or device level (“Billy, do you know how much electricity your Nintendo Wii consumes? Until you pay the bills, you’re only playing for one hour per day!”).

But most devices do poorly on my ultimate test: the Transactive Test. Is your device transactive? Can it be programmed to respond autonomously to price signals? Can it be programmed to respond to some other type of communication that the consumer can receive under his/her contract with his/her retailer? Can the consumer access the device remotely to change its settings?

Some examples:

1. Energy Hub’s electricity consumption monitoring device: according to their website, “The EnergyHub system comprises several hardware and software elements that work together to give home consumers an immediate, accurate and complete picture of their electricity usage. The system allows consumers to take direct action to reduce their costs when their individual usage information is combined with real-time rate and load information from the utility company.”

Transactive Test grade: hard to tell, because there are so few details on their hardware and software. But I give their language a gentleman’s C; they are saying all of the right things about “taking direct action … individual usage information … real-time rate and load information.” It’s not clear, though, that they mean the device will be able to respond autonomously to real-time rate information, and/or that the consumer can access the device remotely. I’d like to review their work further as it progresses, and have the opportunity to revise my evaluation.

2. Greenbox’s electricity consumption monitoring application. This software application, from the team that brought us Flash, promises its “value-add to the energy monitoring world is its web-based interface that presents energy data to the user with graphs and charts. For the Oklahoma project Greenbox’s “consumer-friendly” interface gathers data every 15 minutes, and utilities use a web-based version on their end, too.” See also the discussion at the Wired Science blog. Greenbox’s website asks “do you know how much energy the appliances in your home are using?” The consumer application has lots of spiffy graphs and data analysis so that you can figure out exactly that.

Transactive Test grade: D+. Data visibility and transparency are important, nay, necessary, but they are not sufficient. This application is slick and looks easy to use, which is crucial for new technology adoption for something as un-sexy as electricity consumption. But as currently scoped and marketed, it is not transactive. As a web application it is likely to allow consumers remote access to their system, but if all you can do is see data, so what? Unless you can change settings it’s not transactive. There is no discussion of being able to use the web application to control and manage devices and appliances, no mention of being able to program them to respond to price signals or other data communications from the energy retailer. It looks like its functions are extensible to transactivity, but it’s not there now. It looks like Oklahoma Gas & Electric will be using the Greenbox interface as it rolls out Silver Spring’s intelligent utility network capabilities and time-of-use (TOU) pricing, but TOU pricing is a pretty blunt instrument. I will keep looking to see if they proceed toward transactive devices and applications, as well as more dynamic pricing.

3. Tendril’s Insight in-home display: this very cool, Zigbee-enabled display makes it easy to see how much your consumption is costing you, right now. It communicates with intelligent devices and with Vantage, Tendril’s web-based energy portal. It’s simple, it’s elegant, it’s empowering. Here’s a good CNet article about Tendril.

Transactive Test grade: C-. I know the transactive capability is there, and I know they’re thinking about it. There is some discussion about being able to use the Vantage system to manage to your bill total so you can stay on budget, and to be able to manage your devices remotely. But it’s not explicitly transactive; there’s no “prices to people and their devices” flavor to the product offerings. Yet.

Note that I think all three of these products are great, and I’m thrilled to see them and others like them in the marketplace. I hope that we are in the process of making the institutional design changes necessary to remove regulatory obstacles that can prevent utilities, retailers, and consumers from using these devices and applications. But their usefulness to consumers, their value creation potential, and their profitability upside potential are all limited unless they push the transactive envelope.