Uplight: Demand-side solutions help customers become active ‘citizens of the grid’

Published on July 26, 2022 by Kim Riley

© Shutterstock

Higher temperatures across the nation this summer continue to push up electricity use, placing evermore demand on the nation’s power grid and increasing its vulnerability, according to experts, who say grid operators must prepare for and anticipate grid usage to make it as reliable and resilient as possible. 

Toward such goals, it’s now more important than ever to have macro-level visibility into the energy being used, says Indran Ratnathicam, chief marketing officer at Uplight, which provides software and services to more than 85 of North America’s leading electric and gas utilities serving 110 million homes and businesses.

What macro-level visibility means is that rather than focusing on one home’s energy consumption, it’s crucial to consider an entire neighborhood’s usage and to keep zooming out from there to gain visibility into energy use by town, region, etc., and to focus on all types of energy consumption that contribute to strain on the grid, such as increased energy usage for cooling and more EV charging during summer travel, for example.

The role of software in this process is critical, according to Ratnathicam, and not only helps grid operators manage the bulk electric system during peak demand, but also contributes to powering the clean technology revolution.

Last August, Uplight launched its Plus product, which allows utility companies to package programs and services based on customer needs. Plus offers subscription energy that gives customers a more personalized experience, as well as predictable monthly bills.

Utilities including AES Indiana, Duke Energy and others have launched Plus as part of successful pilot programs. AES Indiana, for example, used Plus to pilot a subscription energy bundle with budget billing, digital payments and green energy enrollment. Within the first three months of launching Plus with a pilot population of 2,000 residential customers, AES Indiana saw a 26 percent increase in autopay enrollment and a 67 percent increase in green energy program enrollment, according to Uplight.

Earlier this month, Uplight’s Plus received a Top Product of the Year Award in the Environment + Energy Leader Awards program, which recognizes excellence in products and services that provide companies with energy and environmental benefits, and in projects implemented by companies that improved environmental or energy management and increased the bottom line.

“To power the clean energy transformation, simplifying the energy usage, billing and savings process for utility customers is key,” said Ratnathicam. “Plus helps utilities accomplish just that, and this recognition is further validation of our approach to better connecting utilities and their customers to achieve decarbonization goals.”

At the same time, Ratnathicam said Uplight, a certified B Corporation, wants to create a more sustainable future using business as a force for good. “Ultimately, our goal is to save 100 million tons of CO2 emissions and save energy customers $10 billion on their energy costs,” he told Daily Energy Insider (DEI) in a recent interview that is featured here and has been edited for length and clarity.

DEI: How should grid operators prepare for increased grid usage during extreme weather events, such as heatwaves?

Ratnathicam: As utilities work to match generation to demand day-to-day and hour-to-hour, we most often think of supply-side solutions that increase capacity first. But for extreme weather events that can be so dynamic, demand-side solutions are an under-utilized, yet very effective, set of additional tools. The technology advances on the other side of the meter make these options much more attractive than they were just a few years ago.

Demand-side solutions complement supply-side solutions, and extreme weather often requires all available options to keep power fully available, as we’ve seen over the past few years. By utilizing smart devices — from smart thermostats, to backup power generators to the many EVs and batteries coming online — to help regulate the demand for grid power, demand-side options get customers involved in the solution, helping them reduce their bills and stabilize the grid. The best of these solutions require little to no action or sacrifice from the customer; they actively, intelligently and invisibly manage these devices in the background.  

In this way, customers and their devices become active “citizens of the grid” rather than passive consumers, a key new asset as extreme weather events become more commonplace. This helps also to reduce the reliance on peaker plants, usually the most expensive and carbon-intensive generation for a grid operator to bring online during extreme weather events.

With demand-side technology solutions from companies such as Uplight, operating with insight in this new, smart, connected grid, demand-side management has the potential to account for 200 gigawatts of load flexibility at any one time…. This represents 20 percent of the entire U.S. grid’s capacity, a significant and effective tool for managing the peak loads that come from extreme events.

DEI: What does it mean to have ‘macro-level visibility into the energy’ being used this summer and beyond, and how should that be accomplished?

Ratnathicam: Common predictions are that in order to decarbonize and accommodate the “electrification of everything” taking place at the edge of the grid, its capacity will have to increase two to four times in the coming years. Extreme weather events will only exacerbate this need for greater capacity.

Not long ago, we could look just at the aggregate demand curve, and use history to try to predict its size and shape, and plan strategies for balancing the grid. This is no longer enough, given that both the shape of the curve is shifting rapidly and the effect of extreme weather makes it even less predictable. We now need to know the sources of energy demand, and types of generation or storage, as well as where they are located to help manage the grid at the granularity it now requires, and use both supply and demand strategies to keep the balance. 

To get to this level of visibility at a macro-level, utilities and commissions need to continue their smart grid investments, as well as proactively get involved in the deployment of many of these new technologies, like EV charging and telematics, distributed generation and other smart energy devices. Software is the key to help these devices stay connected and make their capabilities available and visible to the grid.

DEI: What is the role of software in this process and how is Uplight involved?

Ratnathicam: At home, you might have a smart thermostat and soon an electric car charger. The worst thing that can happen for the grid is that the car charger and the thermostat operate at the same time, as they’re both big loads on the grid. Our job is to orchestrate those two devices to give the customer a full battery when they need it and a cool house while they’re living in it, all without the customer ever noticing.

Further, this connection and orchestration gives grid operators the insights needed to understand not just all the different factors contributing to energy use in one home, but the rest of the street. Behind the scenes, we’re engaging with programs like Time of Use pricing and Demand Response programs to give utilities flexibility and a macro-level view that enables them to operate a more predictable, reliable and decarbonized grid.

DEI: Anything else you’d like to add?

Ratnathicam: Recent events at the congressional and Supreme Court levels have shown that getting the whole community aligned and pulling together to fight climate change is a daunting task. This is why we believe our role as a certified B-Corporation and market-driven company is more important than ever. 

The good news? More than 60 utilities have publicly declared net zero decarbonization goals and more than half of them are in our client portfolio today, with more being added all the time.