Energate Offers Latest in Energy Management Tech

Energate Offers Latest in Energy Management Tech

Executive VP describes new benefits, old roadblocks

Demand management technology and services firm Energate has a new remote-control switch platform it is selling to utilities that lets individual switches respond to price information, Executive VP of Marketing & Product Management Louis Szablya told us in a recent exclusive interview. That product is not yet available for direct sale to the public, though the firm sells other devices including its HolHom line of products such as a smart thermostat online, he added.

The new price-responsive switch platform can use the Ingenu IOT network, Szablya said. Ingenu was formerly called On-Ramp Wireless is deploying a nationwide, two-way IOT network – thus devices too far away from the home for standard ZigBee connectivity will become controllable, he added.

The Ingenu network will give internet-level connectivity and let Energate do all the monitoring, control, verification and reporting it offers with ZigBee-based devices. The switch platform was released in the middle of last year.

“We have utilities that are purchasing it,” Szablya said, and “as these internet-of-things platforms build out and people want to monitor things that may not be close to their homes, this will be a great way to deploy that technology.”

Internet-level connectivity does not have to imply high bandwidth. The comparison is with up-to four hours needed sometimes to hear back from an AMI network, he added. The new systems offer better interactivity.

A “fast” connection “could be in the minute range or maybe a couple of minutes,” though for the switches and other Energate gear to be price responsive, they only need to talk to the network once a day or as often as the price of power changes, he added.

Price-responsive switches allow a higher level of control for scheduling and prioritizing what turns off when. Controlling a home water heater is a good example, Szablya said. “If you want to save money, the best bet is to turn off your hot water tank for as much as possible and only turn it on when you want to.”

First, a schedule can be set to heat water for morning showers and then again in the evening for a while “and the rest of the time it’s off.” On top of such a schedule can be layered pricing controls to avoid heating water during a peak-price event.

Energate is working with a Canadian municipal utility called PowerStream that set the price during certain peaks at least 10 times higher than normal, he added. The utility is jointly owned by the City of Vaughan and the Town of Markham in the York Region of Ontario, its website said.

The scheduling and other parameters are set up via a web interface but the customer has a manual control to override the schedule and pricing events if they really need to, Szablya said. In utility programs, customers have usually agreed to a certain degree of response to join the program and may find limitations on the overrides.

An example might be the first 10 overrides are allowed but 11th one not, he added. Consumers that go out and buy an Energate HolHom thermostat or other energy control device have 100% control, Szablya assured.

Energate gives utilities very specific control over what customers receive load-control messages, he added, such as “all pool pumps in this zip code.” The firm sends out the messages and verify that only the pool pumps receive them, for example.

“We’ll make sure the message is sent. We’ll know when it’s received. We’ll acknowledge when the event starts and we’ll tell them when the customer opts out if they opt out. We have the execution mechanism so we are doing the true middleware.

“We do all the reporting about what happened. We make sure it gets done but we’re not figuring out what needs to be done.” That part is up to the utility and while occasionally Energate has had to customize its systems for a utility customer, “it’s pretty rare,” Szablya said.

Adaptive cycling included

“We’ve just been working with utilities for so long that it really comes down to checkboxes.” For example, multiple direct load-control strategies are available such as temperature offsets, absolute temperature settings, outright interruption, duty cycling and adaptive cycling that Energate calls “Opticycle.”

Energate competitors do adaptive cycling such as “pre-cooling” but Opticycle does a much more thorough job, he added. The example he gave was two houses that are identical except one has an oversized central air conditioner.

A competitor would likely cycle all air conditioners to a 50% duty cycle to put just half the load on the system but the people with the larger air-conditioner would use it no less because it runs so much less to cool the house. Opticycle uses an algorithm keep track of how often the air conditioner has been running recently and for how long and will cut that use in half, Szablya said.

“We actually have a patented technology that were using on that,” he added.

Pushback is conceptual

The need for automated systems is critical because people are very uncomfortable with the idea of variable rates for power, Szablya noted. People like to know they are getting the same price for power all the time but they should know that if a seller of any product takes a risk on the customer’s behalf, sellers charge for that, he added.

But taking a price risk with power, “is not that big of a deal, especially if you have some tools to manage it,” he added. To help customers be more comfortable with the idea, Szablya spent “quite a while” in setting up its customer-facing website “to change the entire vocabulary from demand response into just consumer language.

“I hate to tell this to utilities but consumers don’t give a rip about demand response.”

Protections as hurdles

“Utilities have an obligation to make sure that things are consistent and they work in a consistent manner amongst all of their customers,” and that can cause roadblocks to improvement of services and solving their own problems, he added. He was not disparaging utilities – just stating a fact, Szablya said.

Many utilities cannot take advantage of new features such as Opticycle that require a firmware upgrade because of the internal policies on changing firmware versions. These upgrades can solve issues for utilities but the policies on upgrades are meant to protect reliability, he added.

When a utility can approve an upgrade, they happen “over the air,” Szablya said, so the changes are easy at the technology level. An upgrade for OG&E was available, “and it gave them the results that they wanted,” but they had an approved firmware release in the field and were not able to do the testing needed to approve the upgrade.

The problem exists with smart thermostats and other hardware, too, when Energate has a newer version with more options available for an expansion of a utility program but the utility does not have approval to give some customers one level and another level to others.

Security ensured

Energate is committed to ZigBee SEP 1.x because it is truly secure and utilities are especially sensitive to security. The worst-case scenario would be a person hacking a single device but never farther into the network because every device has its own certificate and is thus “authenticated – so every communication is authenticated.

ZigBee home automation can be hacked, Szablya said, as was demonstrated at a hacker convention last year.

“We had hoped that on the new ZigBee 3.0 that they were going to include the security. They dropped the security component,” as far as he knows, Szablya said. “If that’s the case, were going to have to figure out some other way to deal with it.”

In the mean time, Energate uses a separate communications methodology to send proprietary information through the secure link in ZigBee SEP 1.x. That way security and functionality are both intact, he added.

Before joining Energate, Szablya was director of smart grid integration at SAIC and a smart grid and utility consultant and VP of sales and delivery at GridPoint, the Energate website said.

Source: Smart Grid Today

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