New York City: aggregating tiny loads

Customers control window ACs by smartphone

Phil Carson | Aug 12, 2012


New York's Consolidated Edison, or Con Edison, is looking for the proverbial low-hanging fruit, not in a street vendor's offering but in energy efficiency. And Con Edison wants the customer to pick and enjoy that fruit, with secondary benefits for the utility.

"I firmly believe that there has to be an obvious customer benefit from which the utility gains a resulting, secondary benefit, not the reverse," Colin Smart, section manager for commercial customer solutions in Con Edison's energy efficiency and demand management programs, told me recently. "Our approach is to try to take the conversation to customer empowerment and control."

That conversation, which primarily involves energy efficiency and demand response, encompasses four customer classes: commercial/industrial, small business, residential and multi-family dwellings. Because Con Edison is a transmission and distribution company, its main concerns focus on flattening the load curve and deferring capital investment on capacity-constrained circuits, Smart said. 

"It's down to what we call the network level, running out of a substation," Smart added. "The size of those networks can run from 60 MW up to about 250 MW and there are about 70 substations in our service territory."

Of course, there are other drivers. New York state regulators also have established an energy efficiency portfolio standard in association with the state goal of "15 by 15," which means cutting 15 percent of the state's carbon emissions by 2015. That requires cutting peak use as well as overall use.

Smart had responsibility for commercial, residential and multi-dwelling demand response programs until last year, when he took over the utility's efforts in the commercial/industrial energy efficiency and demand response sector. He described programs in all these areas, but the "multi-dwelling" (read: apartments) were the most interesting.  

In the residential and multi-dwelling sector, the "pull" rather than "push" strategy is particularly important, as price signals that might otherwise move customers to shave peak load and flatten the load profile on key circuits are "deafened" by aspects of life in New York City.

High real estate values—and thus, high rents—and high salaries, relative to the cost of electricity bills, tend to undercut messages such as "saving money" on electricity bills, Smart told me.

"While we are in the early stages of this type of engagement, in New York we have seen real price signal-type solutions have minimal, if any impact," Smart told me. "I do not believe this is surprising. I have my thoughts on price elasticity and I believe the price signal conversation is best left to a machine to machine conversation. The economics of such a solution, in most cases, is still a ways off. For humans, talking about price signals only makes the energy subject less interesting."

Instead, in a relatively new program, Con Edison's message to apartment dwellers, for instance, is that the utility can provide the tools to control their window air conditioners and thus manage electricity use and costs. This is through CoolNYC, a Con Edison program in partnership with ThinkEco, and it involves some "cool" technology, pun intended.

The CoolNYC program is most interesting, to me, because it illustrates the power of aggregating small loads and the innovation that makes addressing those small loads possible. 

New York City has about 6.3 million window AC units, with another million expected over the next five years, according to Smart. Individually they don't consume much. Together, however, operating at the same time, a few million of them consume about one-fifth of the city's peak load.

Traditionally, window AC units have been hard to address. But a start-up called ThinkEco came up with a remote-controlled "Modlet," or "modern outlet." Between the appliance and the wall socket is a device that controls the AC setting that customers can manipulate from an app on their smartphones. Formerly they'd leave the AC on high all day because of lack of control. The suggested notion is that the customer can set the temperature up, lowering the AC draw, during the day, and turn the temperature setting down before returning home from work. A smart thermostat is positioned elsewhere in the room, so it's unaffected by the heat from the AC unit.

Con Edison can control the smart thermostat as part of a demand response agreement, though customers can override that command as needed. Con Edison connects to the thermostat via broadband wireless to the customer's Internet router. The utility is pursuing a "carrier solution," meaning that the signal would be picked up by a major carrier's cellular coverage rather than the router. 

During a demand response event, or period of high demand, Con Edison turns the unit on or off, until the ambient temperature set by the company is reached. This differs from traditional plug load management where units are turned on and off based on time, with a set temperature. Thus, customers are more comfortable during an event. So there's a range and Con Edison uses on/off to hit the high or low end of the range during a demand response event. At all other times the customer sets their own control choices or makes decisions based on their day and/or planned and unplanned activities, so that rooms are only cooled when they need to be cooled.

"We are in the process of deploying 10,000 `smartAC Modlets' from ThinkEco as part of our pilot," Smart told me. "A version of the Modlet is also being sold at retail via select Best Buy stores."

Around the country, Smart added, people talk about 2,000, 3,000-square foot houses. In New York City, people live in 500-square foot apartments with two big devices: a window air conditioner and a fridge. 

"And they won't let me near their fridge," Smart said, chuckling. "So we have to adapt to our unique environment."

In a house you have more choices because you have a better economy of solution, Smart pointed out. You might have several options for curtailment in a home with a 1, 2, maybe 3 kilowatt load. A window AC unit might represent a load of perhaps a half-kW.  

How will Con Edison measure results?

A power chip, bascially a semiconductor, measures electrical current and voltage, via a reader in the Modlet to know exactly how the AC unit is behaving.  

"We're learning a lot about how people use window air conditioners," Smart said.

"The customer engagement piece is all about empowering the customer. It's not about what Con Edison needs. Give the customer some control and choice and make it sexy and fun. That's what the customer is drawn to—being able to control that unit and save some money," Smart concluded.

"My philosophy is that we (the utility) have to look at getting secondary benefits, not the primary benefit," he added. "Because it's too hard to sell that to the customer. Electricity by its nature is an enablement tool. And when you take away enablement, I think it's very difficult to really partner with them (the customers). You have to create a pull instead of pushing it."

Phil Carson 
Intelligent Utility Daily 

Related Topics


Room AC control - where is the customer solution?

I expect to see another column on this program in 12-14 months pointing out all the marginal assumptions that again focus on technology rather than economics or actual customer benefits. Room air conditioners have always posed a problem for 'city based utilities'. At about .5 kw there really isn't enough load to warrant much of an investment in conventional load control. So how does Con Ed justify a device (Modlet) with a suggested retail value of $150 that the customer purchases from Best Buy for $69.99 less a utility rebate of $25 and a demand response $25 ecard participation incentive? That looks to me like a customer investment of $44.99 and a potential utility subsidy of $130.01. That's a pretty big investment for what might be .1 to .2 kW of peak reduction. 
The device operation is also a little misleading. The Modlet uses a 2-degree deadband in its thermostat, which may save some energy but it does impact comfort. Utility control that works off temperature has two problems; (1) it presumes that temperature is more equitable than cycling or time of control (not true), and (2) temperature can be gamed through pre-cooling. We can dismiss for now the potential uproar that might ensue from the monitoring of customer load that this wireless technology requires.

As for customer benefits - I'm not sure that many customers will see a $44.99 investment to to remotely control their room AC unit  or to let Con Ed control their room AC as much of a benefit.

Room AC issues have been bantered about for over 20 years. So why so little utility industry progress in work with the manufacturers to come up with more embedded intelligence and features that the customer may actually find useful and economic?

Customer solutions with possibilities


I consult with companies in the customer experience area and the CoolNYC program that ConEd/Colin is offering is an excellent example of the kind of customer engagement programs and orientation that is needed by utilities as they are transforming their businesses in the smart grid world.

Colin’s comment that the primary benefit is for the customer and secondary benefit is derived by the utility is key and the kind of approach that shapes a successful program. What ConEd has done, I assume by design, was to actually segment a group of customers into a demographic that is not about retail factors like sports enthusiasts or soccer moms but something more meaningful for the utility, premise loads that impact demand.  Given this segmented load understanding they are enabling the customers impacted as part of this group with a simple and easy program that is part of their daily routine. The program does not require an engineering understanding of what is happening to make it work so that is key.

The critical point is this is not just about saving a small amount of money that will not get a customers attention but giving them a simple and behaviorally inherent way of managing energy costs without going to a lot of extra effort outside of my normal routine. The primary benefit is this does not disrupt my normal daily priorities and I get to save some money and if I care help out the environment.

The secondary benefit is the utility will get the type of engagement and adoption from these customers to meet their load shaping and energy efficiency requirements. Plus another comment that Colin made is “we are learning a lot about how people use window AC”. This is going to provide additional benefit for ConEd as they analyze that data and use it to incrementally improve the program. This information can be used in conjunction with more of the traditional demographic information to fine tune the program and increase adoption if needed.

Electricity as an enablement tool and working the customer side of the equation with what is enabled via the use of that tool is an excellent closing comment. ConEd/Colin good luck with the program and keep pushing these creative ideas.

Charles Speidel
CES Consulting, LLC



Attitude is Everything: Smart Attitude

I read a great book once, titled Attitude is Everything. The key premise is that we control our attitude, but not much else. The author described how attitude drives one's belief system and in turn, how they perceive the world. And our perceptions shape our reality.Thus if the reality a utility seeks is shaved peaks, then it should look to what it controls - its attitudes, beliefs, and perceptions. Understanding that energy consumers are independent and have a very different perspective is a vital first step for a utility.

Colin Smart's attitude leads him to focus on load from the perspective of the user and to design a program for primary customer benefits and secondary utility benefits. His load shifting program - really a window unit AC controller program - makes sense from the consumer's perspective. In contrast, DR programs that appeal to the user to adjust behavior on a price signal offer weak incentives. And similarly, requests to shift peak consumption for the good of the utility will appeal to only a small segment. But giving more control over comfort is a winning message. Enable that message with technology and a tailored program and DR has a chance for broad appeal.

John Cooper, Partner, NextWatt Solutions