Make your house work for you (and the grid)

The untapped resource of home energy use is about to be tapped.
By Julian Spector

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Houses signify so many different things: Life-sustaining shelters, lucrative investment vehicles, canvases for personal expression. Some of you readers might add: miniature power plants.

Grid wonks love the idea of passive electricity consumers seizing the means of production in their own homes. The arrival of smart appliances, solar panels, batteries and electric vehicle chargers means households can generate electricity and exert more control over when and how they consume it. In theory, this makes their lives better and helps the broader power system.

Most actual consumers have yet to hear of this bright future. That’s another casualty of the clean energy industry’s tendency toward wonky insider conversations that exclude people who don’t live and breathe the jargon.

But more and more opportunities are popping up for homeowners to earn some money for controlling their energy usage. Jeff St. John just covered a new one in Southern California, put together by community-based power provider Clean Power Alliance.

Clean Power Alliance is looking for 10,000 out of its 3 million overall customers to put smart devices like thermostats, EV chargers and batteries in their homes. 

  • Technology company AutoGrid will use all those gadgets to deliver emergency power to the grid to ward off potential blackouts. 

  • The network can also serve demand in normal times and save customers on their power bills.

Often a virtual power plant focuses on one type of resource: 5,000 home batteries or thousands of thermostats. But AutoGrid insists the portfolio approach provides more value than working with a single asset.

Check out Jeff’s article for an overview of where we’re at in turning this concept into a regular part of daily grid operations. There’s a lot of potential, some actual action and a number of lingering questions.

The big conceptual question: How do you achieve the same level of reliability with millions of devices controlled by fickle human beings as you do with a central power plant that answers solely to a utility?

  • A smart thermostat can change when the grid needs it, but the resident could override it and zero out the grid benefit.

  • Managing electric car charging shifts significant amounts of demand. But it’s hard to predict exactly when and where drivers will need their batteries filled up.

  • Batteries deliver power on demand, but that use can compete with a customer’s desire for secure backup power.

Taking devices that people bought for themselves and turning them into tools for the collective management of the energy system is bound to create these sorts of tensions.

It’s up to AutoGrid, as well as the many other companies providing similar aggregation and optimization services, to show that its algorithms and portfolio management adequately defuse these tensions. Some users opting out doesn’t matter if you have many more to take their place.

Julian Spector is a senior reporter at Canary Media. He reports on batteries, long-duration energy storage, low-carbon hydrogen and clean energy breakthroughs around the world.