April 29, 2005 4:00 AM PDT

Warming up to climate control tech

Would you give up control of your thermostat in exchange for cash? A couple of companies focused on "clean technology" are finding out that for some people, the answer is yes.

During peak periods, when electricity costs the most and can be harder to come by, these providers reduce energy consumption via a command, sent to a computer on your power meter, that slightly throttles air conditioners or other select appliances.

"Central air conditioners, hot water and pools can account for 75 percent to 80 percent of your utility bills," said Robert Chiste, CEO of Hanover, N.J.-based Comverge, which promotes technology for automatically curbing energy consumption.

News.context

What's new:
A small but growing number of companies are focusing on advancing so-called clean technology, which maximizes nature's resources in a variety of ways, including climate control.

Bottom line:
They might be shivering a little more than they would if they could control their thermostats themselves, but some customers clearly think automated temperature controls are worth the knockoff on their monthly bills.

More stories on this topic

Comverge and Boston's EnerNoc have emerged as two of the potential breakout companies in the small but growing market for clean technology, a broad field that encompasses new types of solar panels, water purification systems, fuel cells and more. All of the companies revolve somehow around trying to profit from maximizing nature's resources.

Comverge focuses largely on residences, while EnerNoc seeks to control energy consumption in commercial buildings, but the overall idea is the same. A module attached to a power meter in a building regularly communicates with the utility or other organization providing power over the Internet, radio channels or a cellular network.

The attention span of U.S. consumers and businesses for energy matters ebbs and flows--these days it's on the rise again. Oil isn't cheap, as many noted in their higher heating bills over the winter and in gasoline prices now ranging between $2 and $3 a gallon. With the dog days of summer not too far off, the specter of brownouts and blackouts casts a shadow. Environmental consciousness is also a factor.

But it's the bills that hit closest to home. Depending on the climate control program consumers choose, they can get a monthly rebate or experience an overall reduction of around 15 percent to 25 percent.

The utilities, meanwhile, benefit by not having to build extra power plants or buy energy at peak prices on the open market. In Salt Lake City, a utility is installing Comverge control units in 90,000 homes. Since each unit can throttle about a kilowatt of energy consumption, the units will effectively perform the same job as a 90-megawatt plant, which can cost a few hundred thousand dollars to build.

So far, the company has signed contracts for 225 megawatts of virtual peak capacity in different parts of the country and has seen annual revenue grow to around $25 million.

Chilling out
EnerNoc has installed systems in New England, California and New York. Altogether, EnerNoc can deliver 125 megawatts of power fairly rapidly, and that translates to about 500 megawatts of load, or capacity, said CEO Tim Healy.

Utilities and grid operators pay a monthly fee to participate in one of EnerNoc's regional demand response programs. "We are essentially an insurance provider to the grid," Healy said. "They will pay us whether we get called or not."

When the call comes, the company can deliver multiple megawatts to a region facing a potential blackout--an increasing danger in areas such as Southern Connecticut, where the infrastructure is wobbly--in less than half an hour.

Grocery stores, office buildings and other end users participating in a demand response program, however, benefit too. Their power bills might go down; additionally, EnerNoc has developed algorithms that determine the value of the electricity they contribute to the grid while throttling back.

"All of a sudden they are getting a check from the (energy) provider for something that wasn't that tough to do," Healy said.

Companies such as Honeywell have been selling "smart" thermostats for years that can automatically throttle. The spread of the Internet and cellular networks, however, is now allowing these new companies to connect remote sites

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10 comments

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Discomfort degrades productivity
In my office at work, there are two ari ducts that blow diretly into my cubicle. Int he summer with the AC on, it gets rather COLD. We don't have control over this thing, and distracted attempts to improve comfort by redirecting airflow with wads of paper towels or sections of cardboard get removed and lectured about.

The other day a coworker needed my help with something. He sat in my guest chair for a minute, got too cold, and then stood outside my cube and we talked over the wall. Nearby cubicle dwellers wear jackets or sweaters in the heat of summer. After 5PM though, the AC often gets shut off completely and it then gets quite warm. People who otherwise would like to stay late and get things done get too hot and go home instead.

Being in it constantly and having grown up in a colder climate, I'm numb to it. Other people from warmer corners of the office sit there and literally shiver. It's silly to crank the AC up so high when people obviously don't want it and can't concentrate because of it.

Do managers really value some phantom savings they think they get from preventing people from being comfortable is more valuable than that of the lost productivity due to the resulting discomfort?
Posted by amigabill (93 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Your problems is unrelated...
I don't think your comment is related to this article. I work in an office environment too so I know all too well that temperature is often either too cold or too warm. This has happened in office buildings for years because companies (customers of energy companies) themselves try to save money.

This article, on the other hand, talks about utilities controlling the thermostat. Because electricity companies have many thousands of customers, they don't have to decrease/increase temperature by much to save power. I'm sure there's also a range on how much they can change temperature. For example, article mentioned 1.5 degrees -- most people won't be able to feel change of 1.5 degrees.
Posted by Rusdude (170 comments )
Link Flag
The idea is good... your office needs help.
No amount of utility control is going to help an office with a badly-installed system like yours to feel more comfortable. You need to have your office manager get on the stick and put in an efficient-running system, and they'd find they could save even more money on utilities than this article's program would manage. On the other hand, the progam in the article will barely register on anyone's personal comfort level, so it's akin to getting "money for nothing."

Personally, I think we'd be equally served by storing power in-house, instead of drawing it on-demand at all times. A battery- or capacitor-based storage system would allow users to draw power slowly, at non-peak times, and burn their own stored power first, evening out the high-demand periods that cause higher prices, and brownout/blackouts. But until we all have battery plants installed in our basements, this idea has serious merit.
Posted by Steve Jordan (126 comments )
Link Flag
Discomfort degrades productivity
In my office at work, there are two ari ducts that blow diretly into my cubicle. Int he summer with the AC on, it gets rather COLD. We don't have control over this thing, and distracted attempts to improve comfort by redirecting airflow with wads of paper towels or sections of cardboard get removed and lectured about.

The other day a coworker needed my help with something. He sat in my guest chair for a minute, got too cold, and then stood outside my cube and we talked over the wall. Nearby cubicle dwellers wear jackets or sweaters in the heat of summer. After 5PM though, the AC often gets shut off completely and it then gets quite warm. People who otherwise would like to stay late and get things done get too hot and go home instead.

Being in it constantly and having grown up in a colder climate, I'm numb to it. Other people from warmer corners of the office sit there and literally shiver. It's silly to crank the AC up so high when people obviously don't want it and can't concentrate because of it.

Do managers really value some phantom savings they think they get from preventing people from being comfortable is more valuable than that of the lost productivity due to the resulting discomfort?
Posted by amigabill (93 comments )
Reply Link Flag
Your problems is unrelated...
I don't think your comment is related to this article. I work in an office environment too so I know all too well that temperature is often either too cold or too warm. This has happened in office buildings for years because companies (customers of energy companies) themselves try to save money.

This article, on the other hand, talks about utilities controlling the thermostat. Because electricity companies have many thousands of customers, they don't have to decrease/increase temperature by much to save power. I'm sure there's also a range on how much they can change temperature. For example, article mentioned 1.5 degrees -- most people won't be able to feel change of 1.5 degrees.
Posted by Rusdude (170 comments )
Link Flag
The idea is good... your office needs help.
No amount of utility control is going to help an office with a badly-installed system like yours to feel more comfortable. You need to have your office manager get on the stick and put in an efficient-running system, and they'd find they could save even more money on utilities than this article's program would manage. On the other hand, the progam in the article will barely register on anyone's personal comfort level, so it's akin to getting "money for nothing."

Personally, I think we'd be equally served by storing power in-house, instead of drawing it on-demand at all times. A battery- or capacitor-based storage system would allow users to draw power slowly, at non-peak times, and burn their own stored power first, evening out the high-demand periods that cause higher prices, and brownout/blackouts. But until we all have battery plants installed in our basements, this idea has serious merit.
Posted by Steve Jordan (126 comments )
Link Flag
DIY
Why let some third party siphon off a portion of the energy costs a consumer is saving by setting the thermostat higher? Just adjust the temperature yourself and get a $30 programmable thermostat. People are excited about getting a $5 check, but they must have saved the electrical company a lot more, and would have saved more had they just turned down AC themselves. Oh yeah I totally trust some third party company to give back to me what I saved.
Posted by sanenazok (3449 comments )
Reply Link Flag
DIY
Why let some third party siphon off a portion of the energy costs a consumer is saving by setting the thermostat higher? Just adjust the temperature yourself and get a $30 programmable thermostat. People are excited about getting a $5 check, but they must have saved the electrical company a lot more, and would have saved more had they just turned down AC themselves. Oh yeah I totally trust some third party company to give back to me what I saved.
Posted by sanenazok (3449 comments )
Reply Link Flag
 

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