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Connected Everything: Have We Finally Reached the Tipping Point?

Bryce Yonker's picture

There is a lot of buzz about the Internet of Things (IoT) these days. But what does the proliferation of these smart and connected devices mean for our energy systems?

I was recently in Home Depot, taking my usual look at LED prices to see how much they had come down. I was excited to see that they had dropped to around $4 per bulb. Four years ago, my wife was pretty fed up with me for spending $20 on LEDs whose harsh light made our house feel like a laboratory. Not only is today’s pricing becoming much more manageable, but the actual light quality is passing the test of my wife (who has quite high standards as an apparel developer for Nike).

On this particular shopping trip, I found something a bit more interesting than just the declining price of LEDs. Prominently featured right inside the front doors was a “smart lighting” section. I hadn’t realized the time was ripe for connected and smart lights to be available at a retail level. I looked at all the options – the fancy “any color” Philips Hue, which I just couldn't justify buying; a number of other connected lights from providers I hadn’t yet heard of; and lastly, my eyes landed on the connected Cree bulbs. In looking further at the options, I realized that many of them required an open platform system called a Wink Hub so they could be wirelessly integrated. So out I walked with my $50 Wink Hub, a $20 Connected Cree, and a $20 GE bulb. 

I got home, connected the system (some assembly required), and now my front and back porch lights are connected and controllable via my iPhone. I was pretty excited, but was this really going to save me any money, especially when the alternative LEDs are 75% less expensive? I don't really know, but so far I don't really care – to me, the unprecedented remote control and programming capability is worth it. Is connected lighting and this Wink Hub open platform to connect any smart device to my phone going to be a game changer for the smart home? Again I’m not certain, but I’m pretty excited about the possibilities. 

The behavior of large commercial energy users, and certainly grid operators, around the new wave of connected and smart applications is quite a bit more rational than my “wow factor” experience getting into connected lighting. The variety of solutions coming online are saving both grid operators and major energy users significant dollars – and the added information on energy consumption (and on-site generation) is making new revenue streams possible. 

While many of you know me as Clean Edge’s director of business development, I also wear another hat as the executive director of Smart Grid Northwest, a regional trade organization. In my role at Smart Grid Northwest, I will be hosting a two-part online meeting on April 20th called Connected Everything – What it Means for the Grid. The discussion will feature four leading companies – Verizon, Itron, Tendril, and Blue Pillar – who are offering platforms for 21st-century connectivity. These companies, and others in the industry, are making smart energy consumption and generation possible through platforms such as cellular networks, AMI infrastructure, and energy management software/networks. 

Like the iPhone, other mobile devices have become a platform for a diversity of useful (if also time-consuming) applications. It seems that our energy system is headed in this direction as well. In many ways, retail utilities will be offering the platform for these various smart applications to benefit users, grid operators and maintainers. 

Who are the leading providers of these smart applications? Some of the key companies providing value to energy users and system operators, who will also participate in the April 20th event, are:

  • Nest: A leader in the connected home space, the company launched its flagship product the Nest Learning Thermostat five years ago (I got mine in 2012). Today, the company is driving the evolution of the connected home through its Works With Nest ecosystem and also provides utilities with deployable demand response and energy efficiency programs.

  • Stem: Many in the clean energy industry are looking to storage to enable the continued proliferation of distributed renewables and to allow electricity consumers to effectively respond to price signals. Stem's intelligent energy storage platform helps businesses optimize their storage hardware by generating multiple value streams, from automated peak demand reduction to revenue from grid-balancing services. 

  • Transformative Wave: Many HVAC systems today (which are substantial users of energy for buildings) still don't have a lot of smarts to them. Transformative Wave’s retrofit product for rooftop HVAC systems makes units significantly more efficient and their web-based interface makes HVAC systems ready for load curtailment and transactive controls.

  • Cree: A leader in LED lighting is also paving the way for smart lights. Their connected bulbs are a hot commodity now and I suspect pricing on these will follow the rapid declines that their standard LED brethren have enjoyed over the last few years.

Things are starting to heat up around industrial IoT. Utilities, as well as major energy users, are starting to study how best to leverage the benefits of a diversity of distributed, customer-sited resources, both behind and in front of the meter. The more enlightened utilities are increasingly considering these things to truly be assets, rather than simply more complex loads. These utilities are realizing that distributed, responsive assets can help ease peak capacity requirements, smooth overall loads, and provide other system balancing and management benefits. And companies are figuring out new revenue opportunities from things that in the past were simply energy-related capital expenditures. Are we at the tipping point of activity here? I think so, and the stream of activity in this area will begin flowing more quickly, as markets like California, New York, and others help lead the way from a market structure and policy standpoint.

In many ways, however, it is still early days and the value for these technologies needs to continue to prove out.  I still do not have my smart fridge, washing machine, or dishwasher (and believe me, I have looked), but with my Nest thermostat, smart lights, and Wink Hub I am ready when they arrive. I look forward to the financial and other benefits that a diversity of connected applications will offer directly to energy users like me. And I look forward to the time, coming right around the corner, when large commercial users and grid operators will find that installing and using these smart-connected devices on a widespread basis is as easy my trip to Home Depot.


Bryce Yonker is Clean Edge’s senior director of business development and executive director of Smart Grid Northwest, a regional trade organization working to promote smart grid-related industry and deployment in the Pacific Northwest.