After first announcing a partnership last year, National Grid plc and Copper Labs Inc. said they had demonstrated how targeted messaging can help customers reduce energy consumption during extreme weather events such as the bomb cyclone that tore through the East Coast in January.

Copper Labs in March 2021 received $2 million in funding from National Grid Partners, the company’s venture investment branch, to further deploy wireless real-time energy management (WREM) systems for electric and gas utilities. 

The partners put Copper Labs’ WREM systems to the test as heavy snows slammed downstate New York in late January. From 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. on Jan. 30, National Grid saw peak demand for natural gas, and with Copper Labs, sent targeted messages to a test group of customers, dubbed the demand response (DR) group. 

The notifications were sent out to customers’ smartphones, encouraging them to modify their behavior by turning the heat down a few degrees or postponing a hot shower in order to conserve natural gas.

Copper Labs in October released the results of the case study, which showed that the DR group reduced its natural gas consumption by about 18%, as compared with the control group, which did not receive targeted messaging. 

Both the test group and control groups were equally sized, according to Copper Labs, and the company used a randomized control approach to yield the results. 

“While customers saw some energy savings, the main purpose of this pilot was to assess a first-of-its-kind approach to behavioral demand reductions” compared with smart thermostats or other technologies, Copper Labs’ Essie Snell, product marketing manager, told NGI. 

Copper Labs’ hardware, Snell noted, is “smaller than a pack of playing cards,” which customers plug into an in-home outlet. 

The question the two companies sought to answer in the pilot, said Snell was whether “utilities influence customers to be a part of the solution when the gas delivery system is facing high peaks during extreme weather events, which are becoming increasingly common in the face of climate change.” 

Despite the 18% reduction in natural gas use over the four-hour period, results of the pilot also showed that while the control group’s natural gas usage declined sharply following the peak demand period, the DR group used slightly more energy during the same period. 

Snell noted that DR events for both gas and electricity “typically have a so-called ‘bounce-back’ effect after the event window when customers turn the heat back up and increase energy consumption.

“That can counteract the net savings during the event to some extent, but we haven’t quantified the impact in this particular pilot since the main focus for us was on helping a gas utility maintain pressure during a peak demand window to ensure that gas service remained reliable and sufficient to allow all customers to successfully heat their homes,” Snell said. 

“Unlocking near real-time usage data for our gas consumers has created new opportunities for our gas consumers to reduce peak demand when it matters most to our gas distribution system,” said National Grid’s John Rei, director for distributed energy resources

Copper Labs’ monitoring technology provides the utility with “a new channel to engage targeted consumers with actionable insights that help them reduce energy costs,” Rei added.

According to the case study, the natural gas savings that resulted from the targeted messages contributed to National Grid avoiding service disruptions. 

The software could be used to observe real-time natural gas use in order to predict energy demand patterns. Copper Labs’ data also could identify inefficient heating, ventilation and air-conditioning units based on gas consumption, the case study noted.

Thus far, Copper Labs has tested its services at the household level with its wireless in-home device, but it is seeking to partner with utilities and network operators to scale its technology up to the neighborhood level. 

Scaling up could entail Copper Labs having its new hardware “installed in a central location,” such as a utility pole, which “can capture near-real-time data from multiple meters without requiring any installation of in-home hardware, allowing these kinds of programs to be scaled up much more quickly than would be possible with an in-home approach,” Snell said. 

Boulder, CO-based Copper Labs has previously partnered with Minneapolis-based utility Xcel Energy Inc. and Glenwood Springs, CO-based electric cooperative Holy Cross Energy.

Headquartered in London, National Grid earlier this year said it was working to transition its New York and Massachusetts natural gas networks from the fossil fuel to hydrogen or renewable natural gas by 2050 to achieve net-zero emissions. 

National Grid serves 20 million customers through gas and electric networks in New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.