There has been something of a shift in the smart grid world, in the past decade. At one point, the meter was going to be the in-home device that would let a utility control appliances and provide smart home experiences as a value-add to customers. Now, that dream has withered on the vine, but the shift opened the door for a generation of software-focused startups to storm the industry. Gautam Aggarwal is the CMO of one of these firms, Bidgely, who explained how this shift has played out.
Aggarwal joined Bidgely just over a year ago, and described how the founders started Bidgely in 2011 after realizing that device-based solutions that they were separately working on could not be scaled up sufficiently, concluding that it would be next to impossible to derive the sort of data they needed from the meters themselves.
The two founders, current CEO Abhay Gupta and current CTO Vivek Garud, are both graduates of the Indian Institute of Technology, who met in the Bay Area while both working in the energy space. To this end, they founded Bidgely, using the Hindi word for electricity as the company name.
Their shared experience led the founders to conclude that hardware, their comfort zone, was not the answer, and that a device would not solve their problems. Instead, they took to focusing on the just the meter readings, for both smart meters and monthly-read meters, and using machine-learning algorithms to ‘disaggregate’ this data – to identify what devices and appliances were being used in a home, spotting individual events within the total aggregated meter reading.
Disaggregation is a little tough to get your head around, initially, but the gist of the proposition is that thanks to the availability of data, you can quite easily spot when utility customers fire up specific appliances. This then lets a utility identify broader usage patterns in its customer base, which allows it to take advantage of cheaper renewable energy sources, by knowing why it needs to have sufficient resources available for its customers to consume.
This is also the first step in Demand Response (DR) programs, and can power the rather straightforward Behavioral DR (BDR) first steps, and later the much more complex Automated DR (ADR). Both approaches need some level of insight into home usage, so that utilities can try to load-shift customer energy usage, and disaggregation is how they manage the BDR phase. With sufficient scale, and maybe a smartphone app, a utility could also achieve ADR capabilities using disaggregation alone – without the need for in-home devices, other than a smart meter.
Bidgely’s focus has turned it into one of the largest such providers, and one that is well positioned to take advantage of the growing electrification and decarbonization pressure, said Aggarwal. Headquartered in Mountain View, California, with 150 employees working on this goal, Bidgely is now looking to expand on its already impressive customer list.
We asked Aggarwal if there was any hardware in the future roadmap. He said that Bidgely had talked to a number of utilities about this, and is focused solely on the software. He noted that most utilities are not asking for more data, and that they are fine with the latency between the meter recording its reading and that information being available to them. Bidgely also enjoys the fact that many hardware vendors still have gaps in their analytics offerings, and so utilities need to partner with the likes of Bidgely.
Aggarwal also noted that the utilities’ collective largest pain point is still installing smart meters, and that adding a new device to the mix would only worsen this. Instead, they want to go into DR and customer satisfaction improvements, as well as targeting inefficient appliances in the home that could be replaced. But key to this is getting the data out of the meters in the first place, which is why Bidgely works closely with meter makers like Itron, accessing data in the vendor IT environments, instead of having to wait for the utility to pass it along.
We asked why the meter vendors can’t run the analytics component themselves – why was the door left open for the likes of Bidgely? Aggarwal said that the answer is that this is a hard problem to solve, which has taken years for Bidgely to achieve, on the back of extensive work in demographic information and building consumer profiles. It’s not that the meter vendors didn’t try, he noted, but that they realized they were better when they focused on their core expertise. In the end, utilities themselves pushed for their meter vendors to partner with the likes of Bidgely.
We pushed further, asking if the next generation of smart meters (which might actually be worthy of the ‘smart’ moniker) would change things. Aggarwal was quite enthusiastic about the opportunity to talk about Bidgely’s partnership with Itron, on its new OpenWay Riva platform, which have sufficient compute and memory resources to actually function as edge-compute clients that can run Bidgely’s analytics.
Aggarwal did stress, however, that the proof is in the pudding, in this regard, and so getting it right is going to be important. Currently, the data being processed is historic, pulled from AMI rather than properly smart meters. Within two years, Aggarwal thinks, we will be running analytics on the meters themselves.
This, of course, prompted the inevitable question about industry consolidation, where the metering vendors would look to absorb the likes of Bidgely and Uplight, and integrate them into their portfolios. Aggarwal said that such a move would certainly combine some nice synergies, and would help show customers the benefits of such a tight integration.
At this point, the question of consolidation from the other angle, the smart home, came up – that Amazon or Google might want to acquire the likes of Bidgely for themselves. Bidgely has worked with both firms, said Aggarwal, and that working with companies like Bidgely allows them to go from massive horizontal plays (as the defacto smart home platforms) to more horizontal approaches that could become valuable utility partners.
Aggarwal added that he wouldn’t be surprised if those two didn’t move into the generation game, selling storage or solar capacity on the back of these platforms. Aggarwal also pointed out that Salesforce is in a similar position, thanks to its penetration among utilities on the customer management side of things. This prompted us to ask about the Oracle-Opower acquisition, to which Aggarwal said that Oracle did a good job centering the market around home energy reports, but that the market seems to have moved on. Utilities want more customer engagement, beyond simple energy efficiency reporting.
This brought us onto the topic of automotive electrification, which Aggarwal says utilities want to be prepared for. They are subject to a lot of regulatory pressure, in this regard, he noted, and said that they are concerned about spamming customers with unnecessary information. This is where Bidgely comes in, but that it can only really solve the first step, of identifying which homes have EVs, and that you still need to create some sort of DR capability for load-shifting.
Some utilities are only just starting this journey, said Aggarwal, while others are a lot more advanced. Aggarwal says some are very receptive, and can see how to move from analog meters, into AMI, and then into properly smart meter and smart grid applications.
We asked if Aggarwal was optimistic about such adoption, to which he said he would love to see PG&E get up to speed – pointing to an anecdote that he only found out about an $800 Level 2 EV charger rebate from a neighbor, rather than from his utility, and also recalling how CEO Gupta was given a rebated thermostat he didn’t need from his utility, and immediately sold it online, as evidence of how utilities aren’t yet firing on all cylinders.
Some utilities are working internally to expand their in-house capabilities, while others rely on partnerships. Aggarwal said that there are some with teams of 100 staff dedicated to the analytics problem that still rely on the likes of Bidgely, adding that this is still both a push and pull market for the company – with some utilities only just waking up to the opportunity, while others are clamoring for Bidgely to offer more features, wondering why it doesn’t already do so.