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Thursday, February 25, 2021

SolarCity partners with Nest for utility-backed smart home push

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Nest and its learning thermostats have secured another win under the auspices of its Energy Partner Program, with SolarCity announcing this week that it will offer 10,000 Nest thermostats to Californian customers. The pair say that the partnership is primarily to gauge the impact of combining a system like Nest with the solar systems on consumers – and the value-add potential.

SolarCity, the leading US solar panel installer (according to GTM Research), which features Tesla CEO Elon Musk as its chairman, will primarily be using the thermostats to test its demand-response systems – which will eventually allow utilities to reach into the home to lower electrical consumption or delay intensive power draw until off-peak times, in return for reduced rates.

Select new customers will be issued with a Nest, to allow SolarCity to test processes that might include spooling up the AC before an occupant arrives home to mitigate the increased load that the grid is placed under when workers arrive home to a too-warm house and crank up the air conditioning. Last year, Nest reported that its own demand-response program (Rush Hour Rewards) had reduced the AC load by 55% for participating utilities.

Similar examples might also include delaying a plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) from charging the moment its owner plugs it in, and opting to charge it in the middle of the night instead, where peak-demand is much lower and more manageable for the utility. These systems very closely resemble Honda and Panasonic’s experiments in Home Energy Management Systems (HEMS), which combine a battery storage unit in the home and solar cells to charge a PEV and power the home – while reducing the load on the grid. RIoT covered the Honda HEMS here.

Other companies are also experimenting with similar systems. As Greentech Media points out, last December SunPower invested $20m in Tendril to combine energy management software with solar’s intricacies, and Enphase Energy has partnered with Nexia Home Intelligence, ELIIY Power and MyLight Systems to integrate readouts from the solar panel microinverters into energy management software and apps. Last September also saw Sunrun offer Nest thermostats to its customers, but more as a promotional marketing move than an experiment in smart home integration with solar.

Chargepoint is already on the Works with Nest list, and part of Rush Hour Rewards, meaning that Nest owners that have signed up for the program get reduced rates if they let the Chargepoint dictate when to charge their car. Other implementations could see washing machines from LG (a Works with Nest partner) loaded up at the beginning of the day and then told when to operate by the Nest – based on the dynamically changing price of electricity or the current spare capacity in the grid.

Broadly speaking, these demand-response systems fit into the burgeoning smart grid envelope, which is increasingly using technology and connectivity to automate and improve efficiency in the electric grid – with a push towards transitioning towards a networked collection of smaller or micro grids, instead of the current gargantuan national grid.

There are benefits in transmission efficiency that can be harnessed in smaller grids, as they never have to up-convert the voltage to move it through networks of pylons and then down-convert it again into a safe voltage for use in a home – which presents multiple stages of non-perfectly efficient conversion.

But more significant is the fact that smaller grids play better with renewable sources of energy installed in residential properties, which experience fluctuating outputs and sometimes contribute spare capacity back into the national grid – generating revenue or discounts for the homeowner thanks to a shiny new set of solar panels from a company such as SolarCity.

So with smaller grids that will be increasingly powered by renewables, being able to manage and adapt to the ebb and flow of electricity demand throughout the day will help homes draw less power from the national grid, if they have access to solar panels.

The home can continuously use the smaller current generated by the panels to gently cool the home throughout the day, instead of having the HVAC system working at full capacity to quickly cool the home upon its owner’s return. The intelligence that will coordinate this will be the Nest.

Consequently, taking part in the trial requires customers to have a Nest-compatible AC system, so that the thermostat can tell it when to begin cooling, and conversely when to stop. SolarCity will integrate the Nest data into the MySolarCity app, which visualizes consumption (and therefore encourages lower usage), and is planning on expanding the trial to other Works with Nest devices.

It should be noted that since being founded in 2006, SolarCity has received some $580m investment from Google – which may well have influenced its decision to opt for Nest for this experiment.
Nest and Thread:

The Nest thermostat itself will certainly draw some potential test subjects to the program, given Nest’s reputation as the premier smart home device of the moment. With Google having acquired it for $3.2bn, and then Nest buying Dropcam for another half-billion, the company is slowly building a fleshed out smart home portfolio.

But the bigger news surrounding Nest is its support for Thread, a 6LoWPAN protocol implementation that will provide IPv6 connectivity over the IEEE 802.15.4 PHY and MAC specification – the same used in ZigBee. The low-power protocol should allow Nest to communicate with any compatible smart home devices that are using Thread, and the Thread Group is close to releasing v1.0 of its software stack to its members.

Those members include founders ARM, Big Ass Fans, Freescale, Nest, Samsung, Silicon Labs and Yale Security, as well as new members that include Atmel, Dialog, Imagination, Marvell, MediaTek, NXP, Philips, and SmartThings – which have joined since Thread’s public launch back in July 2014.

Thread is initially focused primarily on the smart home ecosystem, on linking the myriad of devices that will slowly creep into the homes of consumers in developed economies, but it has the potential to expand into industrial applications.

Two weeks ago, RIoT covered the news that the ZigBee Alliance and Thread announced their collaboration to work on enabling the ZigBee Cluster Library to run over a Thread network, which potentially threatens ZigBee’s deployment share given that a software update could effectively convert a ZigBee device to Thread.

So while Thread is poised to do big things in the smart home connectivity space, especially on the back of its support from parent Google (with its dominant web services and the entire Android ecosystem at its disposal), we have a few months yet to wait and see what tactics the Thread Group employ to promote the new protocol.

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