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SoCalGas Providing Customers with Winter Demand Response: Interview on This AESP-Award-Winning Program & How It Benefits Their Customers

Dan Rendler

Earlier in 2019, the Association of Energy Services Professionals (AESP) announced the winners of their awards to recognize outstanding achievement in utility energy efficiency programs across the country. These awards spanned programs in customer engagement, technology, and more, but I recently had the pleasure of speaking with SoCalGas about their award winning Winter Demand Response Program and learn about how this innovative program is bringing real advantages to its customers.

Dan Rendler, director of customer programs and assistance at SoCalGas, was kind enough to answer a host of questions I had on this winter gas demand response program that innovatively implemented smart thermostats in over 9,000 customers' households that not only prevented overstressing the gas demand the utility experienced at any given moment but also improved customer satisfication in a very real way.

Read about the great success SoCalGas has had with their Winter Demand Response Program, as they've been able to offer some useful lessons learned on this program:

Matt ChesterCongratulations on the award of 'Outstanding Achievement in Demand Response and Pricing' for the SoCalGas Winter Demand Response Program. Can you start by giving a bit of an overview on this program, how it was rolled out, and what the results were?

Dan Rendler: SoCalGas partners with multiple smart thermostat manufacturers and distributed energy resource management system (DERMS) providers to implement the Winter Demand Response Program. Customers enroll online and agree to allow minor adjustments to be made to their smart thermostat temperature settings for a few hours on days when SoCalGas calls a natural gas conservation event. These events are designed to help lower the risk of possible natural gas shortages when demand is at its highest. Participants are notified before any adjustments are made via their smart thermostat, web portal, mobile app, and/or email.

Marketing for the program was done by thermostat manufacturers, through mobile application notifications and email campaigns, as well as by SoCalGas via social media, radio ads, and email campaigns.

This season, 40,500 households and 46,500 smart thermostats enrolled in the program through one of six participating device manufacturers, nearly quadrupling the number of enrolled households from the 2017-2018 winter season program.

MC: What were the main goals of the program from the utility perspective? How about from the customer perspective?

DR: When developing this program, we aimed to determine how much load could be reduced to help with system reliability during times of peak demand.

The program offers a number of benefits to our customers. It helps them conserve energy in peak times, which lowers their utility bills and reduces their environmental impact. Customers are also provided with up to $75 in incentives for participating in the program, and this is on top of the $75 rebate for the purchase, self-installation, and self-registration of the smart thermostat under our energy efficiency program. The smart thermostats have customer benefits beyond the demand response program as they are connected and controllable year-round, offering customers additional opportunities to save energy and money. 

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MC: Given the success of the initial rollout of the demand response program, what's the outlook of this program moving forward? Will it see an expansion in customers it’s offered to or in how its implemented?

DR: We are continually looking at ways to improve the program and plan to implement it again next winter.  We are also exploring a demand response program with natural gas water heaters and recently concluded a demonstration project that lowered the water heater temperature by 10 and 20 degrees, as well as setting the water heater to vacation mode remotely. We’ll be utilizing these results to help design a water heating pilot that we hope to launch next winter.

MC: Have you had other organizations reach out to you to learn from what you've done right in trying to achieve the same goals? Have you pursued any of these types of shared goals or collaborations.

DR: Our collaborations with smart thermostat manufacturers, DERMS providers, other utilities, and research organizations have made creating and implementing our demand response program possible. We have also been in communication with several other utilities that are interested in or in the early stages of launching their own natural gas demand response program and want to learn more about our program.  We welcome the collaboration and will continue to participate in discussions to improve and expand gas demand response programs.

MC: Demand response programs are also gaining popularity in electricity markets in addition to your efforts with gas demand response. Are there any notable differences and unique aspects from a gas-specific program that must be taken into account separately from electricity demand response?

DR: Much of the program design for gas demand response mirrors electric demand response, but the most notable difference between the two is that gas demand response runs in the winter, while electric demand response typically runs in the summer.

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MC: Your data showed great responses from customers in terms of responding to the events, but qualitatively what sort of feedback did you get from customers?

DR: Customers may experience fatigue after extensive back to back activations. But we have an engaged customer base, and customer feedback on this program has been positive overall.

MC: What was the reaction at SoCalGas to receiving this award? How do you look to leverage the attention and recognition?

DR: We are very appreciative of receiving this award and are grateful to the Association of Energy Services Professionals for this recognition and to our smart thermostat manufacturing and DERMS providers for implementing this program with us.

Our goal is to offer programs and services that offer solutions to help our customers save energy and money, and we hope to continue collaborating with others and build from our learnings to further improve this program.

To see a full list of the AESP Energy Awards winners, see this article. To learn more about the SoCalGas Winter Demand Response Program, check out their website here.

Matt Chester's picture

Thank Matt for the Post!

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Discussions

Rich Dzikowski's picture
Rich Dzikowski on May 13, 2019 2:55 pm GMT

California is a country where the sun shines in abundance. This is free energy that can be converted into electricity in no time at all. Wouldn't it be easier to produce natural gas using P2G instead of digging for it underground? Germany and Austria already have such industrial plants for the production of synthetic natural gas. The shortage of natural gas mentioned in this report could then be a thing of the past.

 

Paul Chernick's picture
Paul Chernick on Jun 23, 2019 1:01 am GMT

The SCG 2016/17 evaluation reported that "The key finding is that the three SoCalGas Advisory programs generally did not produce statistically significant reductions in gas usage." The 2017/18 evaluation reported that "From a technical perspective, it’s clear the program met the objectives of reducing gas consumption during specific windows of time. However, due to gas usage snap backs in the hours following events, there were no statistically significant net daily therm savings that resulted from this program. Without statistically significant net daily therm savings there is an open question regarding whether the program created value from a reliability or economic perspective." https://www.socalgas.com/regulatory/documents/a-18-11-005/Demand_Response_Testimony_Chapter%201_Final.pdf

In the proceeding, SoCalGas did not even try to explain how a load reduction for a few hours, followed by rebound, would help with its problem of limited storage capacity, following the San Bruno explosion.

In other words, these AESP-award-winning programs have not been saving customers any money or improving reliability. For most systems, gas DR would require much longer load reductions than electric DR, which may make them infeasible. On the other hand, load reductions need not be on any particular hour in a critical day or multi-day period. If SoCalGas focussed on getting daily load reductions (including larger night-time thermostat reductions) on critical days, it might have more success.

These programs make money for the thermostat manufacturers, but aren't much good otherwise.

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