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Special Edition: Energy Efficient Grid Resource Buildings with Glen Spry, CEO & President of SensorSuite [an Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast]

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  • Aug 3, 2021 11:45 am GMT
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Too often, the utility industry looks at the buildings sector as simply customers of the power companies, but thanks to rapidly advancing technology and innovative leaders buildings can now be looked at as assets in their own right. Tapping into opportunities like demand response, energy efficiency, on-site generation and storage, and the aggregation of these and other features means that buildings really can be turned into generation assets that measure up with generation itself, especially when done intelligently and thoughtfully. This process of bringing smart grid tools and modern building technologies together to create new opportunities has become the mission of SensorSuite, and specifically the company’s CEO & President Glen Spry. In this episode, Glen joins host Jason Price and producer Matt Chester to discuss the work being done in Energy Efficient Grid Resource Buildings, or EEGRs. As Glen notes, EEGRs are eager to be part of the solution of climate change and bolster grid reliability as opposed to being a liability like the buildings sector of old. This episode will dive deeper into the possibilities of EEGRs and where the utility-building relationship appears to be moving.

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TRANSCRIPT

Jason Price:
Hello and welcome to this week's episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast. In this show, we strive to bring you diverse topics impacting the utility professional today as told by the thought leaders who are shaping the power sector of tomorrow. I'm your host, Jason Price of West Monroe coming to you from New York City. Along my side in this podcast journey is Energy Central's community manager and podcast producer, Matt Chester. Today we're diving into a topic that hasn't been touched in this podcast before, which is always a reason for excitement. Matt, are you ready for it?

Matt Chester:
You're right that we haven't covered this topic yet. And for such an important one for energy systems, it's definitely long overdue, so I'm ready for it. And we're fortunate to have a leader in the industry to be the one to navigate it for us. So I'm excited.

Jason Price:
Awesome. Well, that topic is energy efficient grid resource buildings. In today's utility industry, as we know, everything is about being enhanced by digital tools and the smart grid. And that includes the building sector, which accounts for nearly three quarters of all U.S. power use. And we're fortunate to have among the foremost minds joining us, Glen Spry, CEO and president of SensorSuite. Glen brings with him an extensive career in the power sector as a former utility executive. Today though, he brings that detailed knowledge gained on distributed energy resources, utility customers, and more to SensorSuite. He's shared a number of popular articles in the Energy Central community on the topic. So with that said, we're excited to now bring Glen into the conversation. Glen Spry, welcome to today's episode of Energy Central's Power Perspectives Podcast.

Glen Spry: 
Well, thank you, lads. what an intro, eh? And what a time to be in the energy industry. Rumor has it, it's only going to be a $17 trillion retrofit of our grids in the next 10 years. So I'm really looking forward to sinking my teeth into that.

Jason Price:
Fantastic. And we're thrilled to have you here. So Glen, let's start at the basics for our listeners. Can you define what an energy efficient grid resource building is for our audience?

Glen Spry:
Well, apart from being a bit of a mouthful, it's easy to describe an EEGR building. They're a highly efficient building. They're one that's connected to the grid via a cloud interface or something along those lines and one that can be aggregated and coordinated to deliver flexibility and support the grids that they're connected to. The industry term is probably going to be a little more familiar with is grid interactive efficient buildings, which is just a horrible way to describe it. So we have come into the term of energy efficient grid resource, EEGR buildings. They're eager to help in the transition of our energy industry.

Glen Spry:
We can unpack it a little bit further. I mean, the fact is that when you look at a building, energy efficiency is key. I mean, there's an old adage in the DR game, you've got to lose the weight before you buy the new suit. And that really just implies it. If you're not running an efficient building, you're just going to be overspending on any measure that you try and deploy into that building to rectify it.

Glen Spry:
The second piece here is they're cloud connected. They're connected buildings. It's great to have a building that runs efficiently, but in isolation, that's all they are. They're just one efficient building. When you can aggregate and coordinate these buildings through a platform, you start to unleash the full scale and full opportunity that EEGR buildings can deliver to the grid.

Glen Spry:
The last piece here is around what do you do with a highly efficient building and a cloud connected control suite? And the thing is you can do so many things. We already manage these builders, run these buildings on a minute-by-minute basis. We're maintaining them to hit a specific set point, a temperature set point within the building. Up in Ontario here, there are local bylaws that say you have to maintain a building at 21 degrees. You cannot go below that. And that really puts the onus on the building owner to build a system, to maintain the building to achieve that.

Glen Spry:
But our system runs that building as efficiently as possible to maintain that set point. When you look at a control solution and take it away from just that ability to hit a set point and allow that system a little bit of latitude, a little bit of flexibility, what you can actually do is you can start really manipulating the load profile within that building. And that's really what we're looking at here.

Glen Spry:
As an efficient building, we know we're dropping the overall capacity requirements of that building on the grid. And at scale, that delivers a lot of upstream capacity back to the grid. When we're talking about the flexibility, we can start to load shift throughout the hours of the day, the time of day. So if we're talking about peak demand, the one thing we know is there's a high correlation between these buildings and peak demand. I mean, as mentioned in the opening, at least 70% of our peak demand is driven by buildings. So why don't we start to look at how we can start supporting the grid by managing and manipulating demand at the building level?

Jason Price:
Fantastic. And what are some of those types of buildings? Because my understanding is you cover residential, manufacturers. Can you just talk a little about that?

Glen Spry:
Yeah, sure. We operate primarily in the multi-res building space. We do serve the commercial industrial space and the commercial building space as well. But the industry that we're in, specifically the multi-res building, I mean, we've got some really old analog donkeys in this fleet. I mean, these are buildings that were built in the 50s, 60s, 70s. There's not a digital bone in them. So there's a really large opportunity to turn what is an old analog disparate set of buildings, digitize them, connect them to a cloud and start to providing some intelligent overlays to them. We are now bringing on mass, a huge amount of load, a huge amount of flexible load back to those utility operators. And it's an asset that they never had access to. And to be honest, they probably even thought they would ever have access to.

Glen Spry:
But when you start compounding and looking beyond the multi-res space into the commercial industrial sector, rooftop units, chillers, boilers across the industry, we're not talking about getting into the production lines. I don't want to mess with line three, where they're making brown widgets. I don't want to do that. I just want to run the stuff that I can run, which is still a very large chunk of those building loads.

Glen Spry:
And if we look, probably a bit further afield into the commercial building space, I mean, the last 12 months has really thrown a bit of a curve ball to that industry. I remember hearing a couple of stories about how buildings in especially downtown Toronto, we're talking running at 10% to 15% occupancy, but still running at 90% to 95% of the systems running. Now that just doesn't make any sense. I mean, granted in the middle of winter, you can't turn it off because things freeze and you'll have quite a nasty surprise when you go back into the building. But there's just a better way to run these buildings, take into account occupancy, taking into account tenant comfort, and really starting to bring all of this disparate set of building stock together to support that grid.

Jason Price:
Fantastic. Glen, that's not a Toronto accent. Why don't you tell us in the audience a little bit about yourself? How did you get into this space where you're from and how long you've been doing this?

Glen Spry:
Well, if you ask my wife, she'll probably say too long. I ain't from around these here parts. I hail from sunny little New Zealand. I cut my teeth in the energy game back in 2011, 2012. And I honestly, I had no clue what I was doing when I first stepped into that building. I was lucky enough to walk into what was called the trading and portfolio management division of Genesis Energy. And honestly, I think the first meeting I had, if there was one actual word said in the entire meeting was hello. Then it was just an hour and a half of acronyms. So I just sat there as a fly on the wall and really so soaked in as much as I could. I got bitten by the energy 2.0 bug, started to understand that there was a lot of technology coming down the pipe.

Glen Spry:
And really it was all designed to upset the status quo. It was to put more of the power and control in the hands of the consumer, rather than the utility. And I saw it play out where some of the utilities really didn't want that too much. And I realized at that point that I was probably in the wrong space. So that's why I chased the dream of the distributed energy resource industry, the innovative side of the energy industry. And I was also lucky enough to meet that wife of mine, my little Canadian girl, back in 2004. And my deal was that we would spend 10 years in New Zealand, until we had our first child or until we got married. And we did all three in the 10th year. So I ran out of excuses and that's when we moved to Canada with a four month old baby. No jobs, no prospects, just moved up here in the belief that there was going to be an opportunity to chase it, specifically for me around the energy industry. And it's proven to have played out exactly as we thought.

Jason Price:
That's fantastic, Glen. So help our audience understand this a bit further. What exactly is the problem that EEGRs are solving?

Glen Spry:
All right, guys. I think that the problem is really in the eye of the beholder. If we look at a building owner and you understand that you're paying a premium for energy, and then you find out that you're wasting 30% of it, yeah, that's going to quickly rise to the top of your problem list. But as a utility and as an energy industry, the problem is far broader. We're grappling with this existential crisis of climate change. As a necessity, we need to start de-carbonizing our grids because quite frankly, our grids are contributing 40% of global carbon emissions. One of the single best tools that we have in our toolbox to start mitigating some of those impacts of carbon emissions is renewable energy, but they're intermittent. And when we start expanding our deployment of renewable energies, the grid doesn't really like that. I mean, it's a fairly balanced environment.

Jason Price:
Who would be the main stakeholders that are necessary to reach with the message about what EEGRs can do? For example, is the onus on the building owners themselves, or is there a role for the utility sector here?

Glen Spry:
Look, I think it's both. If we look at the building owner, the first is an educational piece here. I mean, a lot of business owners treat their power bills as just that. They receive it from the utility and they'll pass it to accounts and they'll pay the bill. There's not a lot of understanding on how to influence that bill. Energy efficiency has come along in leaps and bounds. So we're now seeing this become your common practice in most companies and most organizations when they look at their energy consumption. The one thing that they cannot wrap their heads around is the fact that they could actually be paid by the utility. That doesn't make sense. So we've got to take them on the journey that just by being a little more flexible in the way they consume energy, there's a windfall for them. There is actually a check at the end of the day from the utility.

Glen Spry:
From a utility point of view, it's a little bit more difficult because this is a very risk adverse industry. One that says, look, I know I have to balance supply and demand every second of every day, otherwise really bad stuff happens. The tool set that we're bringing to market right now has been seen as black magic. It's still a little bit, has the smell of alchemy with it. What we're trying to do is work with utilities to say, "Look, it's no longer alchemy. This is now proven technology. We already run these buildings on a minute by minute basis and achieve that set point at the least amount of cost for energy as possible." But what we're telling now is just by allowing a little more latitude in the way we consume energy within the building, I can ramp up demand when I want it. I can ramp down demand when I want it and at scale.

Glen Spry:
I mean, if we look here in Toronto, we've got some 400,000 buildings that are just sitting there, all operating independently, all invisible to grid operators. With a solution set that we bring to market and what EEGRs can do is provide, A, the visibility of that demand side. It just enables better decision making at the utility level. But also, again, as I mentioned earlier, it supports the grid as it transitions. We know that flexibility is going to be key, especially as intermittent resources come into play. But the fact is that these utilities right now are still grappling with not just our technologies, but a myriad of different technologies. So we've got to prove our worth to them. We've got to prove that we can act and look and feel exactly like that plant that they've got down the road or the hydro dam. We can do that. We're still a little bit small in our infancy, but again, it's working with the utilities, proving our worth and letting them play with our toys.

Jason Price:
Fantastic. But I want to push this a bit further, Glen. We know that older buildings waste a lot of energy. Okay. At the same time though, why should we be spending so much resources behind that when we can just build new capacity, especially clean energy capacity, to meet those energy needs? As long as the energy is cleaner and more efficient, who cares if the building's consuming more of that energy?

Glen Spry:
Well, I'll go back to the old saying I mentioned before, if you're going to buy the new suit, first you got to lose some weight. If we don't, we're always oversizing our equipment. We're always oversizing the generation assets that we're putting into the system. We know that we're entering into a period of significant load growth over the next 10 to 30 years. If we don't start to really optimize the way we consume our energy today, we're constantly going to be overspending and overspending, building more and more capacity without looking at what we consider to be the lowest hanging fruit.

Jason Price:
All Right. So, Glen I like your thinking behind that buildings are an energy asset. So what comes to mind is FERC order 2222. So help us understand and from an unconventional source like on-demand efficiency or load shifting, is the FERC order helpful for EEGRs? Or is it instead creating another hurdle?

Glen Spry:
No, look, it's a tailwind for the entire DR industry. You the fact that FERC 2222, if I look back at when it was released, if I see another title of an article Game Changer or Paradigm Shift, I'll probably choke on my Wheaties. But the fact is it is. This provides a level playing field for any asset that can potentially support the grid. From an EEGR standpoint, we know we have low flexibility. We know we can deliver upstream capacity. We were never getting paid for that in the past. This just provides a level playing field and now a market that we can be remunerated for supporting the grid. So we're no longer just this load sink. We're no longer just this demand side that is blind, invisible and just does its own thing. We can now start to collaborate and more importantly, be remunerated and for our participation in those markets.

Jason Price:
What are some of the challenges facing the implementation of EEGRs? If it's such a win-win situation for building owners, consumers and utilities alike, where's the inertia coming from?

Glen Spry:
There's a bit of a legacy issue, I believe, with the energy efficiency industry. So I think if we look at the last 15, 20 years, a lot of the technologies that we were supposed to be deploying, which were going to be that the saviors, really didn't materialize. And if we look at a lot of the interactions that the customers have had with the energy efficiency companies, often the improving the savings, it will be measured by some fairly convoluted and mystical algorithms. The fact is that we have a bit of a reputational issue in the energy efficiency world, especially when you're sitting there and talking to a customer saying, "I can save you 30%." And they go, "Prove it. Yeah, you might save me 10%, you might save me 20%, but I'm about to pay you a lot of money to save that 30%."

Glen Spry:
So there is an issue here where we've got to perform for our customers. From the other side, if we look at the utility industry, again, it's a relatively new technology. Going back to it's a very risk adverse industry and for good reason. When the lights go out, you don't have too many happy people. But from an energy industry point of view, again, it's proving our worth. And we haven't really had the opportunity. I mean, the industry, especially around EEGRs, is in its infancy. If I look at our portfolio, we've got a couple of hundred buildings on our platform that we're aggregating and coordinating to produce, A, flexibility and upstream capacity for our grids.

Glen Spry:
But the fact is we're very small. So to measure what we can deliver at scale, it takes a bit of a leap of faith. It starts to look at what sort of building systems are out there? How many buildings are out there? What sort of loads are we talking about? And more importantly, can you actually deliver what you're saying? Where we're going through the process right now with a utility where we are proving what we can do. So we're conducting a pilot project where we're turning off loads in a building, we're connecting to the advanced video infrastructure of that utility and we reconcile. They send us a signal, we turn the assets off and they can actually validate that they're actually receiving that demand flexibility. And really up until last few years, that's been really, really difficult to do. I mean, let's face it. Most utilities receive their power information, their advanced meter information weeks, if not months in arrears. So how can you start seeing real-time changes without having that infrastructure in place?

Glen Spry::
So, again, we've got to prove our worth. We're going to start demystifying this whole concept of a building can support the grid when the grid needs it, as opposed to so just being that load sink that they view it today.

Jason Price:
Glen, tell us more about the space that you're in. SensorSuite is in the market that's a bit crowded, yet you differentiate in certain ways. Help us understand what that is.

Glen Spry:
Yeah. Look, I'm going to go back to the first day that I hadn't seen the screen. When I saw the platform in operation, the first thing I saw was this high resolution energy telemetry coming and staring me in the face. And it wasn't daily data, it wasn't 15 minute interval data. This was coming in second by second. And I hadn't seen that before. And that was incredibly appealing to me. The next thing that I saw was the ability to pair that real time visibility with real time controls and that just blew my mind. Honestly, if we look at the utility industry and in my own experience in this, we still have people going around reading meters, someone going off his back door and runs away from the dog, checks the meter and he goes off.

Glen Spry:
That whole system is so analog. The delays in getting that information back to the utility, putting it into a billing system, let alone any analytics that you want to try and pull out of that information, it's just too long. It's too slow and it's incredibly inefficient. And I think we've all had the experience of getting someone who's read that meter and impose an eight over a one, you got a rather large bill, or in some cases a credit.

Glen Spry:
But from my side, this is about giving the kind of information that utilities need to run their grids and run their grids efficiently. You can't do that with a day in arrears, a month in arrears. It has to be real time. It's your finger on the pulse. And that was one of the big things I think with EEGRs is delivering that real-time information so you can make real-time decisions. And if you are living in that minute-by-minute, second-by-second world, it's actually really easy to respond to a demand response call with an hour's notice in an hour duration. I mean, it's kids play. So we're already running these buildings minute by minute, second by second. So we're incredibly responsive, incredibly nimble in how we run these buildings.

Jason Price:
This has been a really interesting conversation, Glen. And now you're leading a hot company, one of the fastest growing companies in Canada in this space. So congratulations on a job well done. Let's turn for a moment and learn a little bit more about you. So we have, as we do with all our guests, is we enter the lightning round. We ask a series of questions. You have one answer or phrase to respond. Are you ready?

Glen Spry:
Let's rock and roll. Go for it.

Jason Price:
So when you want a snack, do you reach for the salty or the sweet?

Glen Spry:
Salty.

Jason Price:
Favorite concert you've been to?

Glen Spry:
Oh, that would be U2 in Auckland, New Zealand under the shadow of One Tree Hill.

Jason Price:
If you could be an animal, what would you be?

Glen Spry:
Wolf. It's probably not original, but let's just say I was named after a dog. So that's not too big of a leap to think it would be a dog. So yeah, we have the best kind of dog, a wolf.

Jason Price:
Okay. Are you a morning person or night owl?

Glen Spry:
I was a morning person until meeting my wife and she has now turned me into a night owl.

Jason Price:
What game show would you choose to be on?

Glen Spry:
Wheel of Fortune. Easy. And for some reason, I always am able to answer the questions that we see on screen. But yeah, who knows how that will play out in real life.

Jason Price:
What are you most passionate about?

Glen Spry:
My family, my planet, and doing the best that I can to support both.

Jason Price:
A spotless performance, Glen. Well done. So to reward you for the effort and for being a good sport, you get to get the last word in today's episode. So if you could give one recommendation or piece of advice to someone only really just learning about EEGRs from you today, what message would you leave them with?

Glen Spry:
This is the future of buildings. It's as simple as that. If we look at where EEGRs are going, they have the potential to fundamentally change the way we interact with energy. When we look at the building stuff that's out there, we have such a large opportunity, not just to support the grid as it grapples with the day-to-day, but to support the grid as it transitions away from this carbon heavy environment to something that's cleaner, greener and far more efficient.

Jason Price:
Fantastic, Glen. We want to thank you for your time today and for sharing some really insightful perspectives with us. We'll be keeping an eye on the world of EEGRs moving forward for sure. And I want to thank you again so much for joining us today.

Glen Spry:
Absolute pleasure, guys. Maybe we can do this again one day. Be great.

Jason Price:
We'd love that. So you can always reach Glen through the Energy Central platform where he welcomes your questions and comments. And on behalf of the entire Energy Central team, thanks to everyone for listening today. Once again, I'm Jason Price. The most relevant conversations of the utility industry today are happening in the Energy Central community. So we look forward to you joining us and sharing your insight at energycentral.com. And we'll see you next time on the Energy Central Power Perspectives Podcast.

 


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As a reminder, the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast is always looking for the authors of the most insightful articles and the members with most impactful voices within the Energy Central community to invite them to discuss further so we can dive even deeper into these compelling topics. Posting about twice per month, we'll seek to connect with professionals in the utility industry who are engaging in creative or innovative work that will be of interest to their colleagues and peers across the Energy Central community. Some podcasts may be a continuation of thought-provoking posts or discussions started in the community or with an industry leader that is interested in sharing their expertise and doing a deeper dive into hot topics or issues relevant to the industry.

The Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast is hosted by Jason PriceCommunity Ambassador of Energy Central. Jason is a Business Development Executive at West Monroe, working in the East Coast Energy and Utilities Group. Jason is joined in the podcast booth by the producer of the podcast, Matt Chester, who is also the Community Manager of Energy Central and energy analyst/independent consultant in energy policy, markets, and technology.  

If you want to be a guest on a future episode of the Energy Central Power Perspectives™ Podcast, let us know! We’ll be pulling guests from our community members who submit engaging content that gets our community talking, and perhaps that next guest will be you! Likewise, if you see an article submitted by a fellow Energy Central community member that you’d like to see broken down in more detail in a conversation, feel free to send us a note to nominate them.  For more information, contact us at community@energycentral.com. Podcast interviews are free for Expert Members and professionals who work for a utility.  We have package offers available for solution providers and vendors. 

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Yolanda  Logan's picture
Yolanda Logan on Aug 9, 2021

I hope some real estate developers are reviewing and perhaps considering this thought provoking topic. Who knew? However, I have a couple of questions: If they took your idea into consideration, would it prove to be cost effective? (i.e. savings on construction & the commercial owner and/or lessee, and possibly a kick-back from PG&E).

Kevin Monte de Ramos's picture
Kevin Monte de Ramos on Aug 12, 2021

It is widely acknowledged that building retrofits are necessary to meet our climate commitments and make the best use of our finite resources.  Beyond the energy savings, iot-enabled technologies also have the advantage of improving tenant engagement/satisfaction as well as providing REIT owners a view into their asset performance.  

With government incentives and energy savings, ROIs often have paybacks less than three years.  The total benefit streams should include enhancements to tenant satisfaction, increased rental premiums, improved brand valuations, and the mitigation of carbon pricing.  If these were ever to be fully quantified, property managers and portfolio managers would realize returns on what Glen called Energy Efficient Grid Resources....And possibly a new revenue stream in the context of capacity and demand response auctions.

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