Jenny: Since intelligent efficiency is so new, one of the themes of this conference was answering the question of what it is. A good description I heard from Ethan Rogers is that intelligent efficiency is the ability to save energy that arises because we can now gather large volumes of data and manage, interpret, communicate, and act upon it in ways that increase the energy efficiency of complex systems. A big part of this is our ability to act on system level efficiency as opposed to just individual components.
Will: I got the sense that the conference was an effort to present information to the broader policy and technology worlds, and to bring those two worlds together. With a lot of technology ramping up, it’s a good time to start grappling with some of the policy questions around how the technology interacts with the regulatory system and the utility world. In some ways the conference raised more questions than answers, but it also helped people wrap their minds around how to think about the issues and ideas.
Helen: Why did you decide to attend and why was it useful for you to attend?
Will: It really appealed to me as a forward thinking and forward looking conference, and I was intrigued by the agenda and scheduled speakers. The issues seemed especially relevant as we start to think about the different regulatory hurdles and opportunities that will come with looking at the future of efficiency here in Minnesota.
Jenny: I was especially interested in the discussion on how cities and communities are starting to use some of these tools since that is work CEE has been pursuing for some time. I moderated a session called “Community Based Program Design” that featured a few speakers currently doing things on the ground with some of this data and information. Their message from working in both commercial and residential space was that the engagement tactics that we are familiar with and that have worked in the past are still a fundamental part of community-based programs. One thing these new tools have done is allowed for more integration in the background so that program providers are able to run their programs more efficiently.
Helen: Who attended the conference?
Will: Broadly it was the technology sector and the policy world, and I would say those were the target audiences. There were also utility commissioners and people from utilities, federal and state government, as well as the Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Jenny: The technology sector and the policy world were definitely a key audience. I think this had to do with what Will said at the beginning – we have all these tools available and need to figure out how to treat them in the policy and regulatory space.
One group that was less visible was the utility sector, especially non-California utilities. I think they are an important part of the discussion, especially in terms of how the program design model can make use of these new technologies. One story I think really captures this was from Ben Bixby of Nest. Nest just rolled out an over-the-air software update that updated their auto-schedule algorithm, which senses when you are away from your home and adjusts your thermostat temperature as a result. Nest predicts this update will save 6 percent across all users. This is a huge energy savings and none of it is being done within the context of a utility program. There were a lot of questions about if this is the new norm – if energy savings are now going to come from software upgrades as opposed to hardware changeouts, and what that looks like from a program design standpoint.
Will: I agree and I heard that theme come through in other talks throughout the conference. I’m thinking specifically about Dian Grueneich from Stanford University’s Precourt Energy Efficiency Center, who talked about how our regulatory framework and utility programs are built towards hardware and widgets and the new wave of efficiency possibility is in software and systems management. So the issue we are dealing with now is how to change that regulatory structure to allow innovation to happen.
Helen: What sessions did you attend and what were the most interesting things you learned?
Will: One of the first sessions called “Big Data and Intelligent Efficiency” underlined that intelligent efficiency is driven by data. Here in Minnesota, and I’m sure elsewhere, we are tackling questions about what level of data is the right amount to be public, how that data should be presented, and if it needs to be public to have utility and regulator involvement and interaction. This session really emphasized for me that this really is all about data and we need more clarity on how that data can and should be used.
Jenny: With many of the city and community themed panels I attended there was a lot of discussion of smart cities and what that means. In terms of data, there seems to be a sense that the city scale provides a contrast to the individual customer or building level, because you can use the information for planning and high level analysis, and can use statistics to your advantage. However, cities don’t often have the capacity to manage this kind of thing themselves. Somebody asked what the “gateway” applications are for city scale adoption – because energy management is not necessarily at the top of the list.
Helen: Was anything that you learned especially applicable to the work we are doing here in Minnesota?
Jenny: The idea of big data and the questions about what scale is useful are issues we are all really wrestling with here in Minnesota. There is certainly a theme of what we can learn from the technology world, especially in terms of their models for open source development. It’s an industry that through its basic core structure is able to adapt and grow and be flexible. That’s a great way of thinking, and a great type of design to bring in to how we are thinking about programs and efficiency in the energy world.
Will: For me there wasn’t necessarily one specific solution that I took back, but it really helped create a mindset on how to think about these issues in a more concrete way. That will be useful in everything we work on here in efficiency.
Helen: After hearing what people are doing in other parts of the country, is there anything we doing locally that’s unique and things people are doing elsewhere that we are missing here in Minnesota?
Will: It is good that we are already talking about data privacy here in Minnesota, and doing so within a comprehensive regulatory conversation. While there are still a lot of open questions regarding data, we are at least beginning to approach some level of clarity and I don’t think this is true for all states.
Jenny: There was a lot of discussion about how in other regions of the country most savings from these types of opportunities are driven by HVAC, especially around high cooling loads and peak swings in summer months. Since we are not driven by such high cooling costs in Minnesota, we have the opportunity to employ these technologies in a more comprehensive way, and there is more opportunity to use these technologies for efficiency and better renewable integration. This also means that we have to be careful about how research and data from other parts of the country are applied here, as we might not have the loads in Minnesota to achieve the same kinds of savings.
Helen: Is there anything that you are especially energized about after the conference?
Jenny: We have been talking for a long time about trying to tackle this idea of system level efficiency and recognizing that it’s not just about a new boiler or a new HVAC system, but about how it all interacts. At this conference we really started to identify the tools that can help get us there and that is exciting.
Will: I am energized from having the opportunity to really think through these questions and issues, be introduced to other people who are also thinking about them, and see the resources out there to help us grapple with them.
ACEEE Intelligent Efficiency Conference
ACEEE Webinar on Intelligent Efficiency
Podcast: The Energy Gang looks at the rise of intelligent efficiency
Photo courtesy of Jason Brackins via Creative Commons