EnerNOC: Implementing Tomorrow’s Smart Grid Today

by Bill Chameides | May 26th, 2011
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

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A view of the NOC. EnerNOC targets inefficiencies in our grid system and turns them into profits. By networking big electricity users who can cut nonessential electricity use on demand, demand is lowered at peak times without additional power.

Featured tonight on PBS’s Nightly Business Report.

When it comes to David Brewster, the co-founder and president of the Boston-based company EnerNOC, I’m not exactly an objective observer. As dean of Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment, I take great pride in the fact that David is an alum. And am quite fortunate he serves on the school’s Board of Visitors.

He’s pretty extraordinary. Along with his cofounder Tim Healy, David started a business based on a killer idea that’s now, a decade later, forging a path to the low-carbon economy while earning a profit and a place on the NASDAQ trading board.

I’ve already posted on the EnerNOC concept, but here’s a quick review.

Trading Megawatts for Negawatts

The challenge every power company and grid operator faces: how to supply electricity when demand outstrips capacity. The 20th century solution was megawatt-focused: produce more megawatts by building more power plants. The 21st century’s negawatt way is better: lower demand (i.e., produce negative watts) so that existing generating capacity can do the job. Great idea, but how? Enter EnerNOC.

Think of a hot summer day when, say, millions of air conditioners are whirring 24/7. The grid is strained to capacity. Instead of firing up another power plant (called a peaking plant because it’s used to meet peak demand), grid operators tap EnerNOC, whose network operations center (the NOC in EnerNOC) signals regional clients: It’s game time — cut nonessential electricity use. Within minutes, peak demand is lowered, and a blackout is averted. In the process, pollutant emissions are avoided.

For supplying on-demand negawatts, power companies pay EnerNOC which, in turn, pays its clients on a quarterly basis. What a great model: Curtail electricity when needed and get paid to do so. A virtual power plant.

EnerNOC Co-Founder, a Nicholas School Alum, to Be Featured on PBS Tonight

This innovative solution was picked up by Planet Forward, a media project of George Washington University, after viewing a video produced by the Nicholas School’s Erica Rowell.

They were so taken with the company, they chose to highlight it in a segment they do on energy for PBS’s Nightly Business Report. Tune in tonight to watch. (Find out when the show airs in your area.)

Interview With Brewster

To learn more now, here are some snippets of a conversation TheGreenGrok had with David recently.

TheGreenGrok: How did you come to cofound EnerNOC?

Brewster: What brought me to the energy management space was — it’s really the root of most of our global economic challenges. We’re in a world where we’re … trying to limit the amount of greenhouse gases emitted into the atmosphere, but most end-users of electricity have no idea when and how much electricity they’re consuming. …

So our mission is to bring technology to bear to help businesses get a better grasp on how they’re using energy so that ultimately they can make better energy decisions.

TheGreenGrok: And specifically how?

Brewster: Our business model is all about … networking buildings together so that we can harness their ability to modify how they’re consuming electricity.

If it’s a hot day and supply is scarce or if there’s any problem on the grid, like a transmission outage or a generator outage, we can engage end-users to turn off nonessential electricity usage. So they turn off lights and maybe reduce the cooling in their building. Or, if it’s a cold-storage facility, they can reduce the refrigeration temporarily. Or, if it’s an industrial facility, they can cut off some of their production lines and go into maintenance mode. [All] to create a much more responsive grid. …

[Tim] and I cofounded the company back in 2001 [when] the smart grid wasn’t a term … And how it’s evolved is really, I think, we’re sort of a killer application … of the smart grid.

TheGreenGrok: So when the smart grid’s physical structure catches up, then you can interface with it?

Brewster: Yeah. When most people today think about the smart grid, they think of the … infrastructure layer — … all the smart meters that have to go into homes and buildings, … the sensors and switches, and all the communications layers that enable data communication.  …

What comes after that is the application layer and that’s where EnerNOC is focused: … We’re writing the software to actually take the data from the smart grid and drive better and more informed decisions to save energy in the long run.

TheGreenGrok: Who are your clients?

Brewster: Our business is entirely focused on larger users of electricity. … Commercial and industrial facilities, supermarkets, data centers, hospitals, hotels, universities, … big steel and paper mills. …

When you aggregate thousands of these large users into a portfolio and network them together, they start to become a meaningful part of the overall system.

TheGreenGrok: How do you determine baseline and nonessential energy usage?

Brewster: There’s a tremendous amount of wasted energy in every building in this country. What we’re really expert at is going into these buildings, …  and help[ing] them identify what’s essential for them to be using and what is not … and maybe some of the nonessential electricity consumption can be curtailed at certain periods of time. …

The utility pays us to build a dispatchable network that can reduce electricity consumption. So … once we establish a contract with the utility, our job is to go find big users of electricity.  … They’re sort of our supply chain; we’re buying from these hospitals and data centers and hotels flexibility in how they consume electricity. And we’re sharing the revenue we receive from the utility with these end-users….

Once we’ve built our network, we’re on demand, just like a power plant.  … The utility or grid operator can dispatch us … and so we receive a signal at our network operations center. We automatically notify all the customers in our network in that region, and we start taking action … to bring down demand. We monitor it all on a real-time basis so we can actually show the drop and then we can upload the data to the utility or grid operator.

So it looks and feels just like a power plant. And this provides a really important backstop or emergency resource for the grid.

TheGreenGrok: Describe an actual event.

Brewster: In early February 2011, just before the Super Bowl, a cold snap came through Texas — usually you can’t see your breath in San Antonio, this was obviously an unusual event. The weather caused about 7,000 megawatts of generation to trip offline and so we were dispatched … and the reductions that we helped to provide in the system, and others helped to provide, really went a long way to help keep the lights on — … and make it a more resilient system.

And Here’s the Remarkable Thing About EnerNOC

It’s all done with existing technology — switches and wireless Internet connections — along with their own “special sauce” (David’s term for their proprietary software). How many more killer ideas based on off-the-shelf technologies are out there that can catapult us into the future once the David Brewster’s of the world pick them up? I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

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