Southern eyes Calif. as it makes Southeast homes more efficient

Source: Kristi E. Swartz, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Southern Co. is working with Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the Electric Power Research Institute to develop a high-tech, “smart” neighborhood for the future that will boost grid performance and help customers control their energy use.

The idea isn’t new, but it’s novel in the Southeast, where major regulated utilities run the show and change comes slowly.

Southern’s research and development unit modeled the two pilot projects in Alabama and Georgia on building code changes in California, stricter energy efficiency measures nationwide and new homes being built to higher standards, said Justin Hill, a senior engineer with Southern.

California set a goal to achieve “zero net energy” for new and remodeled homes by 2020, with commercial buildings to follow by 2030. The state Energy Commission also recently adopted building efficiency standards that will steer builders toward installing solar panels on all-new homes (Energywire, May 10).

“We saw that portion of the industry changing with or without us,” Hill said in an interview with E&E News.

Toss in the wide range of connected devices, the falling cost of solar and storage, and a healthy prediction of future construction codes, and you have the makings of a fully connected neighborhood.

For Southern’s Alabama Power Co., that takes the shape of an energy-efficient neighborhood in Hoover, Ala., powered by a microgrid — solar and storage plus a backup natural gas generator. Georgia Power Co. will have 46 townhomes with their own solar-battery system and a host of customer-centric devices.

Both will serve as pilot projects for two years. During that time, the electric companies will study energy use and optimization, figure out which technologies work best, and learn how the “smart” systems help customers as well as the grid.

Executives are enthusiastic. They also know there’s a learning curve.

“At this point, we don’t know what we don’t know, and we hope to learn it through that process,” said Kline Petty, manager of Georgia Power’s smart neighborhood project.

Other utility giants, including Duke Energy Corp., are exploring energy efficiency through new construction technologies, said Ram Narayanamurthy, a technical executive at EPRI, which has a long history of partnering with Southern. The difference is scale. What the Atlanta-based utility is doing is substantially bigger than the others, he said.

“The community in Alabama is the most comprehensive of any advanced energy community,” Narayanamurthy said.

EPRI is leveraging its work in California to design energy features for new home construction; setting up data analytics that is tied to customer behavior; and working on a cost-benefit analysis for the Alabama neighborhood’s microgrids.

But while Narayanamurthy acknowledges that EPRI is taking research from California and applying it in the Southeast, he said the opposite is happening, as well.

“We have other communities that are developing from Alabama,” he said. “The learning goes both ways.”

What’s more, Southern is interested in how to retrofit older homes, Narayanamurthy said. Older neighborhoods have their own challenges and unexpected costs, but it can be done, he said.

“You have to target them on what could be done more cost-effectively,” he said. “It has to be more tactfully done.”

It’s a wet heat

The Southeast is unique compared to other parts of the country because of its humid climate. Solar detractors for years would argue that the Southwest had significantly more direct sunlight than the Southeast, but Narayanamurthy said that difference is only about 20 percent.

The distinction lies in the humidity, which plays into how homes are built and air conditioners are designed, he said.

The Alabama and Georgia projects are critical for future planning. In Georgia, this happens every three years through an integrated resource plan before the Public Service Commission.

Even if the projects serve their purpose, the challenge is bringing them to scale, officials said. But Hill said they are projecting roughly 10 to 15 years out when construction codes in the Southeast could change and these connected devices and other energy-efficient technologies are part of a typical home.

Adapting to that is a seismic shift for a company — and an industry — whose entire world centers around providing reliable electricity to everyone all of the time.

Broadly, a new model will overhaul the centralized power grid to support distributed generation and must include a business model to match that.

That takes a lot of buy-in from a lot of people.

“A lot of the questions around what we are going to be doing in the future beyond that will come from this two-year study,” Kline said.

Petty and Hill tout “incredible” support from Georgia Power executives, state utility regulators and Pulte Homes, the Atlanta-based developer behind the Georgia project, in the upper west side of Atlanta. In Alabama, the homes are sold out; Pulte is just starting to offer up the ones in Georgia.

A model is at Georgia Power’s Customer Resource Center in Atlanta.

“Alexa, good morning,” Hill enunciates. The window shades rise, and the lights come on soon after.

Kline follows up with, “Alexa, good night.”

“Nighty night,” the smart device says as the lights go out and the shades drop.

Helping customers is part of the equation. Managing the grid in the best way is the other. This is where Oak Ridge National Laboratory comes into play.

Oak Ridge is developing a controller to manage the Alabama neighborhood’s microgrid. For Georgia, the lab is working on software that talks to a home’s water heater to shift energy load during certain times.

Michael Starke, a power systems engineer with Oak Ridge, described it as a “bargaining process on behalf of the homeowners.”

Load shifting also helps a large energy company like Southern and its utility mange their fleet in a way that eventually could cut out the use of high-cost generation such as peaker plants. Those power plants are usually older, less efficient and more expensive to operate because they are running during critical parts of the day when electricity is costly.

“You can cut back on those, and generally you reduce the cost of electricity overall,” Starke said.