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California grid operator launches new demand flexibility platform enhancements to Flex Alert system, leveraging Energy Web technology

As climate change causes more extreme weather events, electric grid operators face greater challenges to maintaining system reliability. The U.S. has seen examples this year from a variety of immediate causes: February’s grid failure in Texas from extreme cold, this summer’s grid challenges in New York City from extreme heat, and reduced transmission capacity and power supply due to wildfires in the West.

These challenges show no signs of abating, and therefore grid operators need to pursue a variety of strategies to ensure the grid operates reliably in times of extreme stress. One of the tools that grid operators use is load flexibility: rather than treating electricity demand as fixed at any given time and adjusting supply to meet it, grid operators increasingly try to adjust demand as well. Demand flexibility takes various forms, ranging from utility demand response programs to calls for the public to voluntarily conserve in times of, especially, high demand.

Limitations of legacy demand flexibility systems

Among the programs in the latter category is one managed by the California Independent System Operator (CAISO), which is responsible for managing the transmission grid across much of California and a small part of Nevada. That program, called Flex Alerts, historically has worked as follows.

  • If CAISO foresees that, because of the weather forecast, supply and transmission conditions, and expected demand, demand will be critically high relative to supply in the coming days, it calls a Flex Alert.
  • Calling a Flex Alert simply means that CAISO communicates a call to conserve electricity during specific critical hours. That communication takes several forms, including an email to Flex Alert subscribers and posts to social media.
  • The message is a request for consumers to voluntarily conserve during the specific hours. Consumers then conserve if, and as much as, they wish: CAISO has no ability to adjust consumers’ thermostat settings or take any other steps to force anyone to conserve.

One limitation of this system has been that CAISO has had no visibility into how many consumers might try to conserve electricity. That is to say, when CAISO calls a Flex Alert, is the public paying attention? Will people try to save energy? The only way to measure the effect of the program has been afterward to compare the demand that CAISO would have expected if not for the Flex Alert to the demand that the system actually saw.

Advantages of California’s new Flex Alert system

CAISO now has deployed an improved Flex Alert platform based on Energy Web’s open-source technology stack. The new system has several advantages:

  1. Consumers can subscribe to receive either emails or SMS messages whenever CAISO calls a Flex Alert. Open and response rates are much higher for SMS messages than for emails, and therefore people who choose to subscribe to receive SMS messages on their phones are more likely to see a Flex Alert in time to conserve. Enrollment in either or both subscription options is simple for consumers.
  2. Non-subscribers (e.g., people who see a Flex Alert message on social media) and subscribers can respond to the Flex Alert message, so CAISO has some insight into how much demand flexibility it might expect. This insight can become more accurate over time, as past response numbers can be correlated with observed demand reduction.
  3. Subscribers have the option to provide the postal (ZIP) code where they live and see how response rates for their area compare to those for other areas. It also gives CAISO some insight into, in the aggregate, where conservation efforts are greatest.
  4. Because the platform is designed with Energy Web’s approach to self-sovereign identity, CAISO cannot link personal data — email address or mobile number, or postal code — to response history. CAISO can view aggregated data about, for example, how many subscribers in a particular county responded to the most recent Flex Alert. However, CAISO has no ability to connect individual responses with personal information. This means that consumers can be more confident that when they participate (i.e., subscribe or respond to a Flex Alert) they are not creating a data trail for malign actors to mine.

Opportunities to expand demand flexibility anywhere

Our identity approach and the data protection it provides also are extensible to potential future uses.

First, digital identities can be assigned to IoT devices (assets) and integrated into the platform, if it were desirable to integrate other types of demand flexibility programs. This could allow, for example, secure communication directly with smart thermostats, which could then pre-cool automatically (or after the owner’s approval) and then conserve during critical hours. Likewise, electric vehicle charging could be shifted to non-critical hours, so long as charge levels are reached before the vehicle is needed.

Second, because the platform can be operated without anyone organization owning the data or excluding others from it, it enables other power sector stakeholders (regulators, local utilities, or others) to participate as well. For example, if a local utility wished to collaborate with CAISO and use the platform to know which customers and devices were participating in a demand response program, it could do that while keeping access to sensitive customer data limited to the appropriate parties.

Furthermore, this platform could facilitate compensation of consumers for the flexibility provided. This would depend on the relevant stakeholders (transmission grid operator, local utility, regulator) all being supportive, but the point is that the technology enables greater levels of reliable, measurable flexibility — all while ensuring appropriate privacy and data ownership — and is independent of whatever market or program design is applied by those stakeholders.

Finally, because the technology is open-source, it could be implemented by other grid operators, with or without Energy Web’s engagement. We see other places in the U.S. alone where the power sector might wish to enhance existing practices, like New York or Texas. But of course, the technology is not limited to the U.S. and could be useful anywhere that the ability to increase demand flexibility while maintaining privacy is desirable.

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Energy Web

Energy Web

EW is a global, member-driven nonprofit accelerating a low-carbon electricity system through open-source, decentralized, digital technologies.