Consumer smart thermostat BTM education
consumer education: the key to optimising btm assets

Consumer education: The key to optimising BTM assets

Research shows that not changing the settings on a smart thermostat can harm the grid. In general, behind the meter (BTM) assets, such as electric vehicles (EVs), need to be more carefully thought through with the end goal of empowering end users to make a positive impact on energy usage.

Many end users wish to help and consumer education, writes Yusuf Latief, is key.

Research conducted by investigators at Cornell University in the US points out that smart thermostat owners are oft-times unable to programme their technology in a way that fully capitalises upon energy saving opportunities.

Instead, end users hoping to be prosumers, actually do the opposite. When left to their default settings, derogatory demand spikes and load synchronisation might incur.

What is needed?

According to Cornell research, it comes down to consumer education. And for Erin D’Amato, director of innovation solutions at Uplight, this is a key aspect for anyone who is involved in the EV buying process.

The widespread electrification that is currently being rolled out is both the result and cause of a merging of industries – that of the auto and utility sectors. And customer experience, D’Amato states, should be at the forefront of their agendas.

“Transitioning to electric vehicles is so critical. From a utility perspective, they want to make sure that they’re not losing that customer mindshare when it comes to being the expert in the grid and managing charging programmes,” said D’Amato.

The consumers’ place within charging is becoming more interactive, a factor that should have far more priority with utilities during the purchasing process. She likened it to the Amazon experience; much of the installation is factored in during purchase, so too should the consumer experience, charging programmes and technologies.

And with the auto sector undergoing rapid electrification, especially in the US, the types of programmes that consumers can get involved in are going to similarly expand.

“We’re going to see a lot of new collaborations, and it’s been starting with pilot programmes. But to scale that it’s going to be digital experience, collaboration, APIs and being able to connect that utility experience into the OEM (original equipment manufacturer) experience.”

And with this comes the potential for the utility to leverage EVs to inform their grid management decisions. As the EV charges, it can then “send data back to make sure that the utility has visibility on where those cars are charging and finding the nudges to get customers to charge off peak.”

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EV as DER and consumer education

For these types of programmes to be successful, what’s needed is a significant change in how people view their EVs, not as just another piece of tech, but rather as an asset; in particular a BTM asset and distributed energy resource (DER).

Joseph Vellone, head of North America at ev.energy, commented on the potential change that we could see if more consumers thought this way: “Electric vehicles are essentially just batteries on wheels. They need to be managed, like other any other DER. EVs that are plugged in can have their charging optimised and modulated to soak up excess solar power. Instead of it going to the ground and potentially not being consumed, this is actually a great way that EVs conserve and help with DER management.”

Vellone cited the unfortunate duck curve in California, where although there is immense solar penetration into the grid, there are unfortunate times where it’s over generated. Too much supply and not enough demand then leads to a staggering amount of energy being wasted.

One area of promise though, is the flexibility of EV charging which is becoming more of a hot topic.

“We’re now seeing that EV charging, particularly residential and workplace charging, is inherently flexible. The average EV driver stays plugged in for somewhere between 12 and 16 hours at a time. Whereas the average kind of charging session for an EV on a level two charger is only between two and three hours.

“That’s a tremendous amount of flexibility that can be used to manage other less manageable DERs, like solar or other sorts of microgeneration that are inherently intermittent.”

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This flexibility, however, is being left in the dust as consumers prefer a ‘set and forget it’ solution, a pre-pandemic mindset where consumers would leave their EV charging throughout the night as the charge is only required the next morning. In a post-pandemic scenario, however, where working hours are more variable, this needs to change.

So, how do we get to this change?

For Vellone the answer lies in automation.

“To mitigate a timer peak, we would want to start charging, perhaps at 3am, and charge between three and six. These are the kinds of things that need to be automated as the average consumer is not going to want to deal with it. And it needs to be made as simple as plugging in a mobile phone or iPhone at night before going to bed.”

For EVs and other types of thermostats alike, in the eyes of the consumer, the only desired form of interaction is the basics. An EV should be ready when needed and a smart water heater should have hot water ready when the consumer is cold, and not after.

The processes in the background, states Vellone, are not front of mind for the consumer as long as convenience is placed as a top priority and consumer needs are seen to.

Minding the consumer-utility gap

For Vellone, there are two ways to incentivise a more mindful consumer approach to their smart assets and to ensure a closer relationship between the utility and its customers.

  1. “Super easy enrolment. Make it super simple because people are busy. They don’t have time. Then make the optimisation completely automated – set it and forget it.
  2. Financial compensation. Consumers are willing to cede control to a third party for the sake of convenience. But they also understand that they’re doing this to support the grid.”

With utilities experiencing a degrading reputation, according to Vellone, consumer empathy should be viewed more and more as a key approach to their work.

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“When the utility is going to a consumer to reduce demand or provide the grid service in some way, consumers are going to want to ask, ‘okay, well, what’s in it for me? What are you doing to have me alter my behaviour in some way?’”

And with smart thermostat use and the position of the consumer within the energy mix becoming ever more pertinent, so too are such questions.

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