If Energy Utilities Want Happy Customers, They Should Learn from Google

 In Technica News

When it’s time for you to leave your office for a meeting, Google is all knowing. Whether that event is in your calendar or just in your email inbox, Google gives you a head start on what traffic looks like and the optimal time to leave. It can only do this, because it’s reading your email. In any other context, this could be seen as an invasion of privacy. It’s similar to the way some people who don’t see the benefit of electrical utility smart meters still don’t like the idea of their energy use being collected in 15 minute increments.

“Unlike Google’s travel assistance, where the user benefits are clear and immediate, many utilities have yet to fully utilize the potential benefits of smart meters to consumers ,” says Val Miftkhov, ex-Googler and now CEO of the smart-grid electric vehicle charging supply equipment (EVSE) company eMotorWerks. “With Google, the usefulness and convenience of Gmail tracking what you are up to and where you are going far outweighs any diminished privacy one might initially feel. It makes your life better, and for that convenience, you are willing to trust Google to protect your privacy.”

With the many smart meter rollouts we have seen, most of the benefits have been derived by the utility company, not the customer. Smart meters allow utilities to remotely read your data rather than sending a technician to read your meter manually once a month. While this saves the utility a significant amount on operating expenses, ratepayers don’t see those savings reflected in their bill. In some cases, commercial ratepayers, and for residential in 2018, the 15 minute data allows them to charge rates based on time of day, with higher prices when demand peaks. In Europe, where energy providers are more similar to cell phone providers in the US, smart meters can tie ratepayers to one utility provider, restricting choice in who delivers your energy.

All of these examples are not a win-win for the customer and the utility. By their nature, utilities are methodical in their adoption of new technology, and they should be if we want their main objective is consistent and reliable power. However, for the real benefits of smart meters to be realized and actually improve the ratepayers’ life (like Google), there are several startups filling the void.

Miftkhov’s eMotorWerks holds the highest reviews on Amazon for its cloud-connected electric vehicle chargers because consumers see the immediate benefit. Popular with utilities like Sonoma Clean Power and Marin Clean Energy, eMotorWerks technology allows utilities to aggregate and optimize the power rate at which electric vehicles charge on the grid, to ensure that demand and supply equal out most economically. This balancing also enables a higher mix of renewable energy generation on the grid, as EV loads can be coordinated to occur when sources such as solar and wind power are abundant. In addition to such intrinsic value, eMotorWerks users can also receive extrinsic value through ‘frequent charging’ type rewards for allowing their cars to charge when power is the cleanest and most abundant, (i.e solar power during the day).

“From a grid standpoint, the amount of energy required to charge an EV is typically similar or even significantly larger than an entire house. With that type of demand and rapid EV proliferation, utilities and grid operators can only hope to maintain grid reliability and stability without building new power plants. Our approach doesn’t require millions or billions in new investment – instead simply communicate and manage the energy these EVs are drawing and when,” said Miftkhov.

The innovative line of EV charging solutions are cloud-connected and smart grid enabled to provide valuable grid management services such as frequency regulation, demand response, local load balancing, peak shaving, and more. These services mean that on a general basis consumers leave it to eMotorWerks’ self-learning platform – it anticipates when the car is needed next and for how far – to decide how quickly their vehicles charge overnight or while at work. However, if they need the car recharged immediately, all they need to do is tell their phone app when the car should be ready and it will be.

Inside the home, the energy efficiency company Bidgely helps utility customers understand their energy usage by providing an itemized list of usage by appliance. The information, is available via various channels including a mobile app, web, SMS, and email, and gives users personalized tips and guidance to visualize, and reduce their level of energy consumption.

The company completed a strong year of business growth in 2016 with several multi-million dollar contracts, including sales of an alerts system (to notify consumers of a potential high bill) to one of the largest utilities in the U.S., the mobile app to a large midWestern utility, and a consumer survey tool to another large electric company. Over the last year, the company exceeded its sales goals, launched new product features, and expanded its global presence to Europe and Asia Pacific. For deployments already in place, Bidgely’s platform showed consistently proven results, with verified Energy Efficiency savings at London Hydro in Canada and 30% peak shift at United Energy in Australia.

Another company utilizing smart meter data better than utilities themselves is Utility API. This startup makes it easier for homeowners and businesses to share their smart meter energy data with energy professionals to simplify the proposal and sales process. Companies from solar installers and energy efficiency auditors, to energy storage companies, use the service to remove sales hurdles and move more people towards using more sustainable energy. The startup estimates it’s saved CA utilities, (and therefore ratepayers) upwards of $2 million annually by reducing the number of manual data requests.

Each of these companies read a user’s energy data, just like the utility does, but in these examples, customers don’t mind. It’s not an invasion of their privacy, because they are able to see clear, tangible improvements in their daily lives from sharing their data. Whether it’s giving up a little bit of control regarding when your EV charges, to visualizing your home energy use from your smartphone, the relationship these customers have with these startups is more akin to Google than their utility. To them, the utility is there to take, but Bidgely, eMotorWerks, Utility API are there to give and create win-wins-wins; for the consumer, the utility and Planet Earth.

Companies don’t have to be in the energy space to take a lead from these startups. Often, a simple reframing of marketing messages, or sales approaches is all that’s needed to show current and future customers the benefits they can get out of a product or service if they share a little data.

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