Today’s low-cost solar and battery technologies are reducing consumers’ need for centralized power generation—prompting energy services companies to rethink their traditional business models.
GreenCom Networks helps energy services companies design innovative services that harness prescriptive analytics and the Internet of Things to optimize decentralized energy production and consumption.
Enablesthe use of decentralized energy assets to smooth demand and supply fluctuations
Empowersconsumers to maximize the value of investing in energy-efficient buildings
Up to 30%cost savings predicted for consumers with innovative energy offerings
Business challenge story
Pioneering new energy markets
Over the past decade, the energy industry has been undergoing some of the most important transformations in its history. Utilities, often in partnership with government, started investing in ambitious programs to modernize and digitize their electricity system—for example, rolling out millions of smart meters, or finding cleaner, more efficient ways to generate power via wind farms and other renewable energy sources.
However, arguably the most profound change in the energy sector’s business model is being driven not by centralized initiatives or regulatory mandates, but by the consumer. As solar panels have become more efficient and less expensive, and as battery technology has advanced, it has suddenly become realistic for many homes to generate and store a significant proportion of the electricity they need locally, reducing their dependency on the grid.
The rise of local power generation poses both technical and existential challenges for traditional energy utilities—but it also offers opportunities for forward-thinking companies to innovate and influence the shape of the energy markets of the future.
GreenCom Networks aims to help energy companies seize those opportunities. Dr. Christian Feisst, the company’s CEO, explains: “Distributed power generation is the area where energy companies can find the largest scope for innovation and growth. It’s also the biggest threat to their existing business model, because as demand for power from the grid declines, their commodity revenues will decline too.
“At GreenCom, our mission is to help utilities make the transition from selling kilowatt-hours of electricity to providing services that help consumers save energy and generate more power for themselves.
“The fact is, consumers don’t really want to buy kilowatt-hours from the grid to power or heat their homes. What they want is for their homes to be 21°C [70°F] all year round, for the lowest cost, and with the least impact on the environment. So we asked ourselves: what if you could sell 21°C as a service? We founded GreenCom to find ways to combine local generation and energy-saving devices with the existing system, and create new managed services that could turn this idea into a reality.”
The concept may seem simple, but the execution is challenging. As a consumer, you might already own some of the key ingredients for an energy-efficient home: a solar panel on your rooftop, a large battery in the electric vehicle in your garage, and a heat pump in your basement, for example. But unless you can coordinate those assets efficiently, you won’t get the best results.
“Imagine it’s a sunny morning, so your solar panel is generating plenty of electricity, but your house is too warm,” says Dr. Feisst. “The obvious decision might be to use that electricity to power your reversible heat pump to cool the house. But what if the weather forecast says that it will become cold and rainy this afternoon? In that case, it might be better to leave the heat in the house for now, and divert the electricity to your vehicle’s battery instead.
“Optimizing in-home energy generation and utilization could require hundreds of these types of decisions per day, and that’s without considering the wider system. For example, your solar panel might get a lot of sun in the morning, while your neighbors’ panels on the other side of the valley generate more power in the afternoon. How can you best balance supply and demand to meet everyone’s needs most efficiently? And on a larger scale, how can energy companies take advantage of local generation or flexible consumption to smooth out regional peaks in demand and make the whole system more efficient?”
Hybrid intelligence with embedded analytics and the Internet of Things
To solve the problem of optimizing local power generation, GreenCom turned to technology. The company has developed a highly scalable energy IoT platform that is capable of processing dataflows from millions of connected devices in close to real-time.
In order to connect to existing in-home assets, such as solar panels, heating, ventilation and cooling (HVAC) systems and electric vehicles, GreenCom has developed an edge software stack that can run on small, low-cost gateway devices. The gateway software is capable not only of monitoring each device’s production and consumption, but also of controlling the devices themselves.
The gateway software also connects to GreenCom’s energy IoT platform in the cloud, where data from millions of homes and devices can be analyzed and orchestrated. The ability to coordinate decentralized energy assets should help energy companies to optimize the efficiency of the electricity system as a whole, while also providing consumers with innovative energy services that are tailored precisely to their needs.
GreenCom decided to work with IBM to enrich its gateway software stack. Using embedded IBM Informix® EDGE software as a foundation for analytics, each gateway is able to capture thousands of readings from each of the devices connected to it, and store them efficiently. The gateway stack can also run IBM ILOG® CPLEX® Optimizer, a mathematical programming engine that helps to calculate optimal strategies for coordinating all the connected devices to maximize efficiency.
Dr. Feisst comments: “The gateway software is designed to be able to run on low-cost, low-power devices that can be installed anywhere in the home. We needed the embedded software to be as efficient as possible. Informix EDGE is one of the only database technologies that doesn’t need to run on a powerful server, and it’s optimized for collecting the kind of time-series data that the connected devices produce.”
He adds: “The small footprint of Informix EDGE leaves us with enough spare capacity to run CPLEX on the gateways too, which is a huge bonus. Instead of sending all the device data directly to the cloud for analysis, which would raise costs and increase latency, we can perform initial analyses on the gateway itself, and simply send the processed results to the cloud. Again, it makes the whole energy IoT platform very efficient.”
The prescriptive analytics capabilities of ILOG CPLEX Optimizer enable the solution to take all of the relevant factors and constraints into account—such as the amount of electricity generated by solar panels, the amount that can be stored in batteries, the cost of running heat pumps, and the influence of the weather. By repeatedly re-analyzing the situation based on the latest incoming device data, the gateway is able to make smarter decisions about how to coordinate all the connected devices in a home to make the best use of local generation, and minimize reliance on power from the grid.
GreenCom is also working closely with IBM on the cloud side of its architecture to integrate with IBM Cloud™ and SoftLayer®. The current version already uses Apache Spark to analyze data as it streams into the cloud platform, and as IBM continues to invest in the open source Spark project, GreenCom is keen to leverage the technology further.
Dr. Feisst says: “Our alliance with IBM is helping us build what we call ‘Hybrid Intelligence’—combining analytics in the cloud with analytics at the edge of the network to gain the best of both worlds. But working with IBM is about much more than just technology: it gives us access to an international sales and support organization that we can harness to put our solutions in front of the biggest players in the energy industry.”
Creating new business models for energy companies
GreenCom’s gateway solution with edge analytics is being prepared for full-scale launch early next year, but the company already has a number of clients who are using its platform to experiment and design new services.
“As one example, we have been working with a specialist heating company to design a solar-powered heating solution that can be built into new houses to maximize self-sufficiency and minimize reliance on grid power,” says Dr. Feisst. “This is the realization of our original idea for ‘21°C as a service’: going forward, our client will be able to offer consumers a pleasant temperature in their homes for a simple monthly fee. By focusing on managed services rather than component manufacturing, their business model also has the potential to become much more profitable.”
As another example, GreenCom has worked with an energy company to develop a package of solar panels, batteries and managed services that allows consumers to purchase electricity at a flat rate for 20 years—freezing their energy costs, and saving up to 30 percent over the period. The deal also allows the energy company to control the connected devices via GreenCom’s platform, which helps to optimize efficiency not only for the consumer, but also across the system as a whole within GreenCom’s virtual power plant.
Dr. Feisst says: “So far, we are only scratching the surface—with the platform we are building, we could help the market evolve in so many interesting directions. We’ve seen the rise of the ‘sharing economy’ with companies like Uber and Airbnb acting as a broker for peer-to-peer transactions in the transportation and hospitality industries. With our technology, we could do the same for energy markets. If your solar panels generate more electricity than you need, you could decide who you want to share it with or sell it to—your extended family, your neighborhood, other people who also have solar panels, or whoever you like!”
He concludes: “Moving towards a less centralized, more community-based approach to energy markets is a huge challenge, but it also presents huge opportunities for forward-thinking energy companies who want to get ahead of the competition. With IBM’s help, we’re developing both the technologies and the business models the industry needs to seize opportunities for future growth.”
About GreenCom Networks
GreenCom Networks is a software-as-a-service company that offers white-label solutions for the utility industry and energy service companies. Its energy IoT platform enables clients to manage energy demand, supply and storage capacity, helping them integrate decentralized energy assets into their portfolio and optimize the overall efficiency of the system.
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