What Google's NEST acquisition could mean for utilities (and it's good news)



Quick Take:   So much of the commentary about the Google NEST acquisition has focused on what it means to Google and its rivals. But what does it mean to our industry? That's why I was so pleased to get this guest editorial from Ron Chebra. He explains the acquisition's impact on utilities. More importantly, he lists six ways utilities could cash in on the NEST's capabilities.  - Jesse Berst


By Ron Chebra


This week, Google announced the acquisition of NEST, the creative, innovative (and expensive) smart thermostat.  It should come as no radical surprise that Google, the information and intelligence king, sees significant value in gaining another foothold in the household.  Interestingly enough, even Webster’s says one of the alternate definitions of the noun "nest" is "a group of similar things."


NEST's group of similar things, however, goes well beyond its current collection of thermostats and smoke/CO detectors. It gets to the heart of what "connectedness” is all about.


Certainly, there are some immediate benefits to having an on-line thermostat and smoke/CO monitor, including remote control, alerting messages and energy conservation. But the siloed efficacy of individual items quickly gets overshadowed when you consider the eco-system perspective.


Tony Fadell, the CEO and founder of NEST, worked at Apple on the iPod. He summed it up very well in a recent interview: "The value of the product alone is great, but the value of the system is even greater.”  He attributed much of NEST's initial hype to the "connected home” geek clan. But he noted that most working adults with children don’t have the time or interest to develop complex scenarios that leverage the "Internet of Things.”


Blurring the enthusiast boundary

Most industries have a need to cross the boundary between pure techno enthusiasts and practical solution seekers. With the dominance of techno-savvy users and the growing intelligence of devices, this cross-over is becoming blurred. This removes the need to choose between being a geek or a pragmatist. Both groups moving forward irreversibly. When you combine that with the growing importance of energy, one quickly realizes the potential that consumer-driven products such as the NEST can provide to the energy industry.   


As a NEST owner and user, I can attest to some of the near-term benefits that consumers and utilities alike can harvest. 

Some of the broader energy ecosystem areas that come to mind include:


New HVAC energy efficiency measures - Given NEST's inherent run-time operating function, energy efficiency programs can be made more effective and productive if that information is provided back to the utility. Often the efficiency of the home is simply measured by the SEER/AFUE rating of the HVAC system. Yet that is but one element of the comfort equation. The building and the external environment are equally important.


Envelope information as a DR tool - The "time to reach temperature” statistic that the NEST provides is a good indicator of the construction and insulation quality of the premises. It could be a trigger to launch a targeted campaign for treatment programs. And it could evolve to more intelligent demand response opportunities, which current set-points or cycle times fail to a achieve.


Advanced HVAC maintenance

 With an established benchmark set on time to heat against envelope profile, simple corrective measures such as filter replacement or airflow restriction can be managed as a service to consumers.


Effective coincident peak management - Armed with the knowledge of HVAC conditions, heating or cooling calls, and the envelope conditions, simple time-dithering of event triggers can help avoid both coincident demand needs and cold coil pick-up problems in the distribution network.  Imagine the value advanced time-based load requirement information can have on extending or predicting the life of distribution transformers. 


Improved personal comfort management - Moving the focus from pure economics to full intelligent choice options would now give customers the ability to know what a curtailment or set back adjustments mean to the environment temperature.


Advanced security services - As more bundled home automation functions become commonplace, the motion detector within the NEST could be used an interior zone monitor.  The NEST CO/smoke detector already interacts with the fan operation of the HVAC system to shut down the most likely cause of an alarm. Extensions of this logical ecosystem binding are inevitable.


So to paraphrase the great JFK Speech, one should not ask what has Google done, but ask what we can do with what they have done.


Ron Chebra is the Managing Director of Utility Subject Matter Experts (ron.chebra@utility-sme.com), an independent consultancy supporting the needs of utilities, vendors and suppliers for advanced technologies in the energy industry.