Connecting Energy Providers and Customers via the Smart Grid
- Tendril offers an integrated suite of energy management applications that run on its Tendril Connect platform, connecting electricity providers directly to their consumers.
- Tendril’s products help electricity providers balance supply and demand, mitigate peaks in real time, and minimize operational costs.
- Tendril’s products also enable consumers to better manage their overall energy use by creating a platform to control appliances remotely and schedule high-energy demand activities for off-peak hours. Consumers typically see a 3 to 5% decrease in their energy use.
Empowering Consumers and Energy Providers with Tools and Information
Imagine a future in which all the appliances in a home could be controlled from anywhere using a smart phone. One could program a refrigerator to produce ice only during off-peak hours, adjust a thermostat based on the price of energy or a utility’s need to reduce peak demand, or control an electric vehicle’s charging schedule to avoid overloading distribution transformers. Tendril’s products are empowering energy providers and consumers to do this and more, bringing this future to customers and utilities every day.
Founded in Boulder, CO, in 2004 by Tim Enwall, a former Apple employee and entrepreneur, Tendril has spent much of the last seven years creating a smart-grid enabled cloud-computing platform to allow homeowners to visualize and control their energy usage. Enwall spent almost a decade at Apple working with third-party developers who built applications to run on Apple’s software. His experience working with Apple helped define Tendril’s mission: to provide the platform for the smart grid.
By making detailed data about electricity consumption and cost available for easy access, Tendril allows homeowners to manage energy usage much in the same way that online banking allows customers to manage their finances. In 2010, over 72 million U.S. households took advantage of online banking (80% of all U.S. households with Internet access).1 Imagine a similar number of households using information technology to manage energy use.
U.S. Energy Markets in Transition
The U.S. electric grid will face a number of serious challenges in the coming decades. Demand for electricity nationwide is expected to rise by 31% by 2035.2 Energy sources are also becoming more diversified and variable. As wind and solar power gain market share, effective integration of these intermittent energy sources will become increasingly important. Similarly, widespread adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) could bring many benefits but would present another hurdle: a household could easily double its electricity demand during peak hours simply by charging the car’s battery.
As the U.S. energy landscape continues to diversify and demand continues to grow, both utilities and consumers are placing a higher value on information. For utilities, better information about overall consumer behavior, and the ability to affect it, can help prevent a blackout during times of peak demand. For consumers, better information about their electricity consumption, and the tools to act on that information, enables them to make choices that reduce cost and save resources.
The primary way utilities are working to bring the electric grid into the information age is via the smart grid, a two-way communications and control infrastructure that overlays the existing electricity grid. As of September 2011, utilities had deployed about 27 million smart meters,3 which allow utilities to collect substantial amounts of data on customer energy usage, and to also send information to customers, such as about the price of electricity.
Tendril and the Smart House
By taking advantage of the emerging smart grid, Tendril serves both electricity providers and electricity consumers with their suite of products and applications, providing for better information exchange and a greater degree of control. The company works with more than 35 utilities and energy service providers using its Tendril Connect platform. Tendril Connect serves as the two-way communications platform on which the company’s applications run – applications such as Tendril Energize, which encourages consumers to adapt, modify and compare behavior based on personal goals and motivators. It provides an online interface that enables utility customers to control energy use. In turn, utilities and energy providers can deliver messages and offer incentives to engage customers in specific programs.
Other Tendril applications that run in conjunction with Tendril Energize include Load Control (where energy providers can target load reductions to manage demand), Demand Response (the use of price signals to encourage customers to reduce demand during peak demand periods), and applications to integrate electric vehicles and distributed generation.
Most of the products Tendril offers are software-based, but the company also has a line of hardware, both for consumers and utilities. For example, Tendril Volt is a device that plugs directly into an outlet and can be used to directly control an appliance connected to that outlet. On a larger scale, the Tendril Load Control Switch allows utilities to choose what to turn off during times when the grid is overtaxed. Such functionality could significantly lower the instances of brown-outs at times of peak energy usage.
Tendril is also keen on encouraging open innovation, where other parties can develop new applications that run on Tendril Connect. To assist in this, Tendril has established a new program in which select developers are given access to Tendril’s application programming interface (API), which developers have begun to use to develop smart phone applications, Facebook games, and other programs using Tendril Connect. One company, SimpleEnergy, developed a Facebook game around energy management using Tendril Connect. And during the first annual Cleanweb Hackathon, dozens of developers worked with the Tendril API for two days to develop various web and mobile applications for energy efficiency. The winning app, Dr. Wattson, uses the Tendril API to demonstrate how consumers might lower their bills by taking advantage of lower pricing options and changing their home energy use.4
Although it mainly works with utilities, Tendril also works with companies like Whirlpool and the home security provider Vivint. Whirlpool has designed many new appliances to work with the smart grid by using Tendril’s platform. Customers buying these appliances can tailor their energy usage to correspond with times when electricity is cheaper: one could, for example, schedule a refrigerator’s defrost cycle to run during off-peak hours. Vivint is a home security provider that also offers home automation services. Using Tendril’s system, Vivent allows people to turn off appliances remotely using a smart phone or computer.
“The ultimate person we’re designing for is really the residential consumer, so that their experience is engaging, they’re getting more and more tools that give them insight and control,” says Cameron Brooks, Senior Director of Market Development and Policy Strategy.
People using Tendril’s home energy system typically lower their energy usage by between 3 and 5%, but this is by no means an upper limit. Electricity customers of the Cape Light Compact in Cape Cod, MA, that have been actively using Tendril’s neighbor-to-neighbor social media platform (which is built into the Energize suite) have seen sustained energy savings of 9%. A decrease of this magnitude nationwide would be equal to about 360 billion kWh per year or about 20% of the electricity generated from the country’s coal plants.5 Overall, the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory has estimated that full implementation of smart grid technologies by 2030 could reduce electricity use by 12%.6
While these results are promising, Adrian Tuck, Tendril’s CEO, has even grander plans. “By engaging and better communicating with consumers and securing their access to energy usage information, we will enable an innovation economy and unleash a wave of entrepreneurship in the energy industry every bit as transformative and powerful as the information and communication economy over the past 20 years,” writes Tuck.7 This is a pretty tall order, but Tendril seems up to the challenge.
1. "Online Bill Payment Now Mainstream, Women Edge out Men, Says Fiserv Survey," Fiserv press release, May 25, 2010. Accessed September 19, 2011: http://newsroom.fiserv.com/releasedetail.cfm?releaseid=473157
3. “Smart Meter Rollouts,” The Edison Foundation, September 2011. Accessed October 12, 2011: http://www.edisonfoundation.net/iee/issueBriefs/SmartMeter_Rollouts_0911.pdf
4. Katie Fehrenbacher, “Live from the first Cleanweb Hackathon,” Gigaom, September 11, 2011. Accessed September 18, 2011: http://gigaom.com/cleantech/live-from-the-first-cleanweb-hackathon
6. “The Smart Grid: An Estimation of the Energy and CO2 Benefits”, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, January 2010. Accessed October 24, 2011: http://energyenvironment.pnnl.gov/news/pdf/PNNL-19112_Revision_1_Final.pdf
7. Adrian Tuck, "A Consumer Smart Grid Begins With Information," October 18, 2010. Accessed October 21: www.tendrilinc.com/blog/a-consumer-smart-grid-begins-with-information/