Smart home technology provides residential customers with powerful tools to control their energy use, make their homes more comfortable and save money. Some smart devices are also a lot of fun — or even a little silly.

The lighter side of connected technology was definitely on display during this year’s Consumer Electronics Show. Held virtually this year because of the pandemic, the event was still a major showcase of the latest high-tech gadgets that you didn’t know you needed. Here are some of the strangest smart home devices unveiled at CES 2021.

Shower Power

While there’s no guarantee that it will improve your singing, this Bluetooth speaker will save energy while you blast tunes in the bathroom. That’s because the Ampere Shower Power gets 100% of its power from the running water that flows through the device as you shower.


Do you ever wish that making an ice cream cone was as easy as brewing a cup of coffee? That’s the promise of ColdSnap. Much like a Keurig coffee maker, ColdSnap users can pop a pod into the dispenser and instantly serve ice cream, frozen yogurt, smoothies — even frozen cocktails.

Themis Smart Mirror

Talking mirrors get a bad rap in fairy tales like Snow White. CareOS is polishing that image with its Themis Smart Mirror. The health and hygiene device can check your temperature, analyze your skin, provide 360-degree and magnified video, and offer makeup, hair and skincare tutorials.

AirCozy Pillow

Does your old-fashioned pillow just lie still while you toss and turn and snore through the night? Not the AirCozy Interactive Smart Pillow from DozzyCozy. This device monitors your sleeping position in real time, automatically adjusting to the perfect height. One model will even reduce snoring by gently shaking until you change sleeping positions.

myQ Pet Portal

Your furry family members shouldn’t be left out of the smart home fun! The myQ Pet Portal is a doggy door paired with a Bluetooth collar that will let your pooch come and go on demand. It also sends alerts to your smartphone so you can monitor Fido’s backyard breaks from anywhere.

As smart technology continues to grow in popularity, more residential customers will bring these devices home and take greater control of their energy use. Consumers will also have some fun with not-so-serious smart gadgets that make life a little more comfy and convenient.

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Fifth-generation (5G) wireless is the latest technology in mobile communications, but is it the greatest? The previous generation, 4G LTE, was launched a decade ago, in 2010, which means it was time for an upgrade. 5G service promises faster speed and a higher-quality wireless experience, but all of that may come at a cost. This is what energy utility customers should know about the launch of 5G technology.

The long and short of 5G technology

The frequency of wireless signals can be measured as hertz (cycles per second) or wavelength (meters). These waves of energy radiate through the air, carrying bits of data that turn into text, pictures and video on your mobile device.

Higher speeds carry more data, which reduces data transfer time and allows for higher-quality audio and video content. 5G has a maximum download speed of up to 2,000 megabits per second (Mbps), compared to 10 Mbps for 4G LTE. The higher speed of 5G enables you to download an entire movie to your phone in seconds.

Higher frequency, though, means shorter wavelengths, which aren’t as good at penetrating solid objects — like buildings. Cell phones typically use lower-frequency, longer-wavelength wireless signals that originate from cell towers and can travel long distances and can pass through windows and walls. The shorter wavelengths used by 5G technology dramatically limit the distance the signal can travel, especially in cities where lots of buildings stand in the way.

Into the 5G spectrum

5G service can operate in a wide range of frequencies generally divided into three different spectrums: low-band, mid-band and high-band.

Low-band spectrum operates at under one gigahertz (GHz), or one billion hertz. It’s used by existing 3G and 4G LTE services and UHF TV channels. Although the frequencies are roughly the same, 5G channels are much wider than 4G and are more responsive (lower latency), which theoretically improves download speed. However, low-band 5G has been found to be relatively slow, acting like 4G or slower.  

The mid-band spectrum is between 2 GHz and 10 GHz. Cell tower range in this spectrum is only about 2,500 feet, about half a mile. Unfortunately, very little of this spectrum is available to phone companies today. T-Mobile is currently rolling out 2.5 GHz mid-band 5G spectrum as a result of its acquisition of Sprint. AT&T and Verizon operate off mid-band spectrum as well, mostly sharing overlapping spectrum from their 4G service.

The high-band spectrum (millimeter wave) is generally between 20 GHz and 100 GHz. Higher download speeds come with much more limited range and noticeable interference from buildings, glass, and even leaves and rain. Cell tower range is limited to about 800 feet and outdoor towers only provide service when outside. Also, high-band 5G requires advanced technology antennas that must be spaced close together. All major wireless companies have at least some limited high-band service, but Verizon only offers 5G service in the high-band spectrum.

5G technology and your smartphone

How will the switch to 5G affect your mobile device? Right now, almost all phones capable of 5G service still need 4G service, at least for voice communication. Eventually, 5G phones will operate in standalone networks. Few 5G-capable phones available today will work with all three spectrum bands.

5G phone chips use a lot more energy than 4G chips, and they drain phone batteries faster. This requires larger batteries or more energy storage capacity (4,000 mAh or more). 5G chips can also run hot and warm up your phone, sometimes causing 5G service to shift to 4G in hot weather. Integrated low-power 5G chips, currently on the horizon, should help clear up these issues.

Making waves at 5G speeds  

Despite these drawbacks, 5G is likely to have a big impact on wireless communication. Besides enabling high-quality video chat, faster downloading and virtual reality experiences, 5G could eliminate the need for onboard data storage. This would push even more data onto the cloud.

5G technology also allows energy utilities to touch every level of the utility customer value-chain. For example, high-speed wireless could accelerate the deployment of autonomous electric vehicles and in-home healthcare due to its higher responsiveness. It already empowers the smart grid, mission-critical communications (like remote equipment monitoring) and the resiliency of licensed spectrum. Stay tuned to find out where 5G wireless will take us next.

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Microgrids are a much smaller version of an energy utility’s megagrid: a network that connects a few buildings, a campus or a neighborhood. They comprise distributed energy resources, energy storage systems and loads under one control system.

Microgrids connect to the main grid at a point of “common coupling,” which maintains voltage at the same level. A switch can automatically or manually separate the microgrid from the main grid, and it then functions as an island. By controlling distributed energy resources as a single entity, they can also act as a bidirectional energy network supplying power to the megagrid if necessary.

With the power of microgrids, it’s no wonder they’ve become a growing trend in the industry. This what energy utilities need to know as they advise customers about the pros and cons of microgrid technology.

Distributed energy resources spur microgrid growth

A record number of microgrids (546) were installed in the United States in 2019, although annual capacity was down 7% from 2018, according to Wood McKenzie. This is in line with a trend toward smaller (below 5 MW) replicable modular systems that started in 2017.

The pandemic has slowed growth so far in 2020. However, FERC Order 2222 will be a major post-pandemic accelerant for microgrids, paving the way for aggregated distributed energy resources (DER) to compete with traditional power plants in wholesale markets. Also, a trend toward third-party ownership of microgrids is driving the development of microgrids. The federal government has also shifted its focus from energy efficiency to resiliency through microgrids over the last few years.

Powering microgrids with renewable energy sources

Microgrids can be powered by distributed generators, batteries or renewable sources, such as solar energy. It’s not uncommon to have a mix of different power sources. Renewable energy sources in microgrids are also enabling beneficial electrification and decarbonization.

Microgrids are still primarily fossil fuel-driven, though, with 86% of new microgrid new capacity in 2019 powered by diesel fuel and natural gas. However, forecasters expect renewable power sources (solar, wind and hydropower) to drive 35% of new microgrid capacity by 2025.

Cutting costs and reducing emissions

Microgrids offer many benefits, including providing resilience in extreme weather conditions. Wildfires, hurricanes and floods often threaten the grid. Apart from emergencies, microgrids can be used for energy independence or sustainability, such as distributing solar power within a neighborhood. They can relieve pressure on the main grid during peak demand.

Microgrids benefit utility customers by providing a more reliable power supply, reducing emissions, cutting costs and connecting to local resources too small for the traditional grid.

Microgrid case studies: Resiliency at work

Microgrids are everywhere and there are a variety of sizes for any number of situations. Take, for instance, New York University’s island microgrid, which was put to the test during Hurricane Sandy in 2012. This microgrid continued to provide power to much of the NYU campus, supplying electricity to 22 buildings and heat to 37 others.

The Fort Collins, Colorado, microgrid is part of a larger project known as the Fort Collins Zero Energy District. The district includes New Belgium Brewery, Colorado State University’s main campus, and other facilities. The goal of the microgrid is to produce as much energy as it consumes. The district’s distributed generation and load-shedding capabilities total 5 megawatts, or enough electricity to power about 3,750 homes.

Arizona Public Service (APS) built, owns, operates and maintains a 25 MW microgrid at the Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Yuma. This installation makes MCAS Yuma 100% resilient to external grid failures and offers APS civilian customers peaking capacity and frequency response reserves.

Several manufacturers of gas-fueled engines, including Siemens, are launching microgrid systems. Using Siemens microgrid management software, one project is testing the concept of microgrid clusters. The Bronzeville Community Microgrid in Illinois is designed to serve 10 critical facilities and over 1,000 customers, including the Chicago Police Department. It will also connect to a nearby microgrid at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Microgrids offer major benefits to utilities

As these examples demonstrate, there are a variety of ways that microgrids can help communities by distributing renewable energy and backing up the main power grid during natural disasters or outages.

The benefits to utilities are anything but micro. Microgrids can improve the operation and stability of the regional electric grid and provide increased resiliency to critical operations customers like hospitals. Plus, they can shore up aging utility infrastructure and decrease peak demand. For energy utilities, thinking small has its advantages.

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With the rise of renewable energy, the way that energy is distributed is changing. The traditional top-down method of energy distribution, from the utility to the customer, doesn’t always apply to energy from solar, wind and other renewable sources — some of which may be generated by customers themselves.

In these cases, where power flow is actually bidirectional, virtual power plants (VPPs) are becoming a more common distribution option.

What is a virtual power plant?

A virtual power plant is a network of decentralized generation sources, such as wind farms, solar arrays and combined heat and power units, that work in coordination with storage systems and flexible energy consumers.

While VPPs may take a variety of different forms, they all operate with one goal: to relieve demand on the grid. They do this by distributing the power generated by individual units during peak hours.

How does a virtual power plant work?

Virtual power plant participants are connected to a central control system that can boost or decrease energy output in real time. VPPs can provide demand response automatically, responding immediately to price signals, shifting commercial and residential loads, or aggregating other distributed energy resources.

All participants are monitored and controlled with a single system, which makes it easy to initiate these distribution adjustments. The system can also show real-time data consumption of each distributed energy resource (DER) on the grid.

VPPs are not the same as a microgrid, which has a confined boundary and can disconnect from the larger grid to create a power island. VPPs can cover much wider geography and can grow or shrink depending upon real-time market conditions.

The goal of a virtual power plant

Overall, the purpose of a virtual power plant is to connect and network DERs, demand response programs and storage systems in order to monitor, forecast, optimize and distribute their generation or consumption. Including these various DERs in one VPP means the data can be forecasted and analyzed as though it was a single power plant.

The VPP also allows energy utilities to separate the DERs by type and location so they can segment customers. By using segmentation to their advantage, energy utilities can determine what kind of value the VPPs bring to customers.

Energy utilities and virtual power plants

Virtual power plants allow energy utilities to better assess and correct demand response issues. For example, Green Mountain Power in Vermont created a VPP with 500 batteries in homes to address peak demand, yielding $500,000 in savings in one one-hour peak demand period.

In some states, there is growing conflict between energy utilities and third party DERs over who has “control” over the VPPs. For example, PPL Corporation in Pennsylvania is currently in a heated debate against a distributed resource aggregation service business, Sunrun, regarding management of the DERs and the regulations put upon solar customers. In other areas, such as California, New England and New York, “third-party companies have signed bilateral contracts with utilities whereby the company is in the driver’s seat for DER management and the utility is a customer instead of a competitor.” These agreements naturally take away the debate and competition for control.

Despite the growing popularity of virtual power plants, these conflicts demonstrate the need for uniform regulations regarding ownership. Still, the cost savings and environmental benefits for both energy utilities and customers prove VPPs will be useful as energy distribution continues to evolve. In addition, they help make renewable energy more readily available on the grid and provide solutions to demand response efforts.

The future of virtual power plants may be murky as the operations continue to evolve, but one thing is clear: this is the future of energy distribution.

Learn how a digital marketing strategy from Questline Digital can help your energy utility promote the benefits of demand response programs.

Questline Digital energy expert Mike Carter shares his analysis of energy storage technology and the outlook for utilities.

Electrical energy is transitory in nature. It is generally consumed as soon as it is produced. This requires closely matching power generation with consumption, which is complex and costly. Energy storage systems (ESS) are a great enabler that can temper this requirement. In fact, energy storage can provide over a dozen general electricity services to the electric grid. Deployments of energy storage capacity almost doubled from 2018 to 2019 and were poised for explosive future growth prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, primarily from the residential market.

Policies like utility integrated resource plans (IRP) and favorable distributed generation interconnection rules have driven the front-of-the-meter (FTM) market. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) Order 841, approved in February 2017, leveled the wholesale energy and capacity FTM markets by treating storage as a generation resource. Monetary incentives from states and utilities, plus improved resiliency have driven the behind-the-meter (BTM) market.

The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) has identified 13 services that energy storage can provide to three stakeholder groups from delivery of each service. The stakeholder groups and benefits are:

  • Independent system operators (ISOs) and regional transmission organizations (RTOs)
    • Energy arbitrage
    • Spin/non-spin reserve
    • Frequency regulation
    • Voltage support
    • Black start
  • Utilities
    • Resource adequacy
    • Transmission congestion relief
    • Transmission and distribution construction deferral
  • Customers (BTM only)
    • Time-of-use bill management
    • Demand charge reduction
    • Increased PV solar self-consumption
    • Backup power

For customers, energy storage can meet on-peak demand with excess energy produced by baseload generation and renewables during off-peak hours. This reduces or eliminates peak customer demand charges. ESS also makes it much easier and cost-effective to add wind and solar energy to the grid.

There are generally seven categories of energy storage technologies:

  • Electrochemical batteries — mainly capacitors
  • Kinetic flywheels — mechanical devices that harness rotational energy to deliver instantaneous electricity
  • Static chemical batteries — a range of electrochemical storage solutions, including advanced chemistry batteries
  • Thermal storage — capturing heat and cold to create energy on demand, including ice storage
  • Chemical flow batteries — batteries where the energy is stored directly in a circulating electrolyte solution for longer cycle life and quick response times
  • Compressed air energy storage — utilizing compressed air to create a potent energy reserve
  • Potential energy — pumped hydro-power creating large-scale reservoirs of energy with water or a tower out of stacked bricks (such as Energy Vault)

Lithium-ion chemistry dominates the static chemical battery market, accounting for 98% of power capacity in new deployments. It offers a much higher power density (smaller footprint), more cycle rates, greater depth of discharge and longer life than lead acid batteries. Li-ion batteries are almost exclusively used in electric vehicles and are making inroads into uninterruptible power supplies (UPS) for data centers.

  • Tesla commercial Powerpacks and residential Tesla Powerwalls have been available for some time.  
  • Green Charge, AES Distributed Energy and LG Chem are other major Li-ion battery storage suppliers.
  • Solar plus battery storage (solar+) is also a growing market sector.
  • Yotta SolarLEAF photovoltaic panels each come with 1 kWh of integrated Li-ion energy storage per panel for BTM applications.

Because there is inherent hazard from the malfunction of any kind of battery, NFPA 855 Standard for Installation of Stationary Storage Systems requires fire-rated separation of the ESS from other indoor occupancies in non-dedicated (unpopulated) use buildings. Every 50 kWh grouping of ESS is to be separated by three feet from each other and from the walls of the room. A maximum 600 kWh of batteries can be installed in one room. Fire detection plus suppression and control is required. Almost every type of battery must have built-in thermal runaway protection. UL9540 Standard for Energy Storage Systems and Equipment defines a test method to evaluate the fire characteristics of a battery energy storage system and can provide exceptions to NFPA 855 requirements.

Deploying solar+ energy storage has some major challenges. A recent report by the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy states, “Regulators often require utilities to offer energy efficiency and solar in separate siloed programs with different funding sources, cost-effectiveness tests, and reporting requirements.”

Also, it is not yet clear whether FERC Order 841 supports value-stacking of different energy storage services like backup power and peak demand reduction together. Thus far, only one service has been allowed per application. In addition, energy storage is a capital-intensive technology that does not fit well into a marginal cost-centric electricity market.

Energy storage can solve many problems along the energy supply chain. Utilities can advance the energy storage market by ownership of customer-sited storage, use of tariffs to encourage energy-storage deployment and grid integration of utility-scale energy storage. There are also several useful energy storage resources:

  • The U.S. Energy Storage Association (ESA) advocates and advances the energy storage industry.
  • ES-Select created by DNV GL in collaboration with Sandia National Labs allows users to screen energy storage technologies by calculating financial outputs.
  • DNV GL’s annual Battery Performance Scorecard provides independent ranking and evaluation of battery vendors based on testing performed in DNV GL’s laboratories.

Energy storage, by corralling the transitory nature of electrical energy, is presenting exciting opportunities not previously available.

Mike Carter is a Senior Engineer at Questline Digital. He has a BS in Engineering and an MBA degree from Ohio State University and is a Certified Energy Manager.

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