As we enter 2021, we find ourselves in the middle of an energy transition that is transforming the way electricity is generated, stored and consumed, with power systems moving from fossil-fuel-based centralized single-flow electric grids to renewable bi-directional and decentralized energy networks.
In the United States, even in the absence of a national target for renewable power generation or carbon emissions reduction, states, cities and utilities have set their own targets. Thirty-three utilities have committed to reaching carbon-free or net zero emissions, and more than half of US states have introduced renewables portfolio standards and have set zero or net zero emissions electricity goals by 2050 or sooner. As the Biden administration takes the helm, the president-elect promises to bolster these regional efforts with a federal economic recovery plan that prioritizes investments in clean energy and grid modernization. At a very high level, the administration’s plan is to have a carbon- and pollution-free power sector by 2035 that is driven by new and upgraded future-ready infrastructure.
Though this combination of rapidly approaching decarbonization targets and political focus promises to accelerate what has so far been a gradual transition for the energy sector, a third game-changing amplifier stems from a new era of data-driven technology and digitalization that is empowering utilities like never before.
Wood Mackenzie’s Grid Edge Research analysts expect very strong growth in DERs during the incoming US administration, forecasting that cumulative DER installations in the US will total almost 73 GWs between 2021 and 2025 — up from 54 GWs between 2016 and 2020. Analysts forecast that DER capacity additions will have surpassed pre-crisis levels by 2024, supported by particularly strong growth in electric vehicles infrastructure.
“While in the past decade, customer-sited solar was the main growth driver of the DER market, now the industry has entered a new phase that centers on the internet of things,” explains Wood Mackenzie analyst Francesco Menona. “Over the next five years, DER growth will be driven by connected devices such as smart thermostats and green interactive water heaters — even charging infrastructure and behind the meter storage.”
The proliferation of smart meters, DER, and connected devices in homes and businesses is creating new opportunities for utilities, but it is also increasing the complexity of grid operations. In this environment, data-enabled strategies are providing essential solutions to simultaneously realize energy transition goals and reshape their operations.
Let’s examine two ways in which data and digitalization can enable utilities to leverage this accelerated period of energy transition to realize not only carbon goals, but also to make operational improvements that will usher in a new era of utility service redefined by stronger customer relationships and a more intelligent grid.
Historically, energy efficiency programs have been offered to the entire utility customer base — either as a monolith or with limited segmentation — resulting in a cost-to-efficiency-gains equation that is very expensive. Reinventing these programs with hyper-targeted, data-driven outreach replaces high-cost mass marketing with more effective and affordable one-to-one personalized engagement that delivers far greater and multi-faceted ROI.
Energy efficiency programs built upon Bidgely’s UtilityAI platform by both electric and gas utilities such as NVEnergy, SoCalGas, Hydro Ottawa, Columbia Gas of Ohio and more provide case studies to the market as to how data-driven approaches yield greater customer engagement and satisfaction, more diverse customer participation across energy consumption and socio-economic populations, and more significant energy savings. Program results include 90 percent customer likes for UtilityAI-based communications, 45 percent email open rates and a nearly 30 percent reduction in energy efficiency costs, reducing dollar-per-kWh program spends.
The efficiency programs that have been implemented by these utility leaders highlight another important reality: that energy efficiency programs are most successful when delivered via a digital-first approach. Digital energy efficiency communications can be more immediate, frequent, relevant and directly linked with one-click to savings opportunities and corrective actions.
Though it remains to be seen what elements of the Biden campaign plan become federal policy, it is likely that retrofitting commercial buildings, weatherizing homes, upgrading and electrifying home appliances and providing greater assistance to low income communities will figure prominently in the plans. Targeted, personalized data-driven and digital-first solutions will enable utilities and their customers to realize maximum benefit from any rebates or other incentives established to advance the goals of such programs.
Beneficial electrification is helping electric utilities make important progress toward decarbonization while increasing revenue as more kWhs are consumed. However, at the same time, increased electrification — whether through the installation of hundreds of thousands of EV charging stations, the deployment of millions of solar panels or the conversion of traditionally gas appliances to electric — has the potential to stress the grid in new and different ways, requiring a careful balance to advance electrification while modernizing the grid. Data enables utilities to more effectively do both.
Let’s look at the evolution to electric vehicles as an example. Increasing EV adoption opens up new opportunities for utilities to both make progress toward clean energy goals and establish lasting energy advisory relationships with customers through involvement in the EV sales process. But at the same time, the proliferation of EVs taxes the grid.
Using AI-driven analytics, Bidgely’s UtilityAI platform allows utilities to realize EV-related benefits and mitigate the risks.
As with successful energy efficiency programs, hyper-targeting is essential. UtilityAI accurately identifies all existing EV owners within a customer base and when and how they charge. This opens the door for upselling EV chargers, designing and suggesting EV rates, as well as engaging EV customers with personalized insights and suggested actions, such as on- versus off-peak charging.
Similarly, UtilityAI can identify customers with the highest propensity to buy an EV, allowing utilities to engage with them on a one-to-one basis to encourage and facilitate their buying journey. These personalized communications help people understand the benefits of EV ownership, compute how much lower their charging fuel costs would be when compared with gasoline, learn how many of their neighbors have recently purchased EVs and more — all based on sensor-less smart meter analytics.
When it comes to the grid, we know EV adoption often emerges in clusters as critical mass builds. Once the number of people, vehicles and chargers within a certain area reaches a certain threshold, the volume of EV adoption increases dramatically. UtilityAI’s identification tools reveal where these clusters are forming, allowing forward-thinking utilities to develop data-driven operational strategies to support them.
Utilities such as Duke Energy and Salt River Project are leading the way when it comes to customer-facing programs and infrastructure roll outs to advance EV adoption in their territories, demonstrating the power of AI to maximize the benefits utilities and their customers are able to realize from EVs and other beneficial electrification strategies.
With the combined momentum of utility and regional net zero targets, federal funding for clean energy and infrastructure programs, and the availability of advanced AI algorithms to optimize and inform utility programs and infrastructure investments, 2021 promises to carry the global energy transformation forward more aggressively than at any time before. A new energy future has become an attainable reality, and Bidgely continues to ensure our utility partners are future-ready with transformative data-driven solutions that allow them to overcome challenges, seize new opportunities and realize program and operational goals more efficiently.
Interested to learn more? Bidgely CEO, Abhay Gupta, outlines how utilities can thrive in driving a clean energy transition under the new administration in this on-demand webinar hosted by Greentech Media featuring insights from Bidgely and Wood Mackenzie. For further reading, visit bidgely.com.