Utilities have a problem: their “smart grids” were created to solve billing problems of a decade ago, not the needs and expectations of 2022 consumers with electric cars, solar panels and an obsession with real-time data. Copper Labs just raised $5.5 million to help them solve that problem, with an elegant little hardware device that serves as a bridge between the low-resolution smart meters and the consumer’s Internet connection.
“The problem is that even the most advanced electrical Smart Grid implementations today only tell utilities what happened yesterday, and only at 15-minute intervals,” said Dan Forman, CEO of Copper Labs. “Many of them only get that data once every 30 days. If you go beyond electricity to gas and water, most of those guys still have access to data once every 30 days. The pace of disruption on the net is not matched by the pace of innovation. We help utilities find more cost-effective ways to deliver the solutions they need.”
The company raised $5.5 million led by Clean Energy Ventures (CEV), a venture capital firm that finances early-stage climate technology innovation, with follow-on holdings from National Grid Partners and Blue Bear Capital. With the new round of funding, Copper Labs plans to expand its sales, engineering and marketing teams over the next year to accelerate national deployment in all utility areas. In addition to the funding, Copper Labs will welcome Nora Mead Brownell, Clean Energy Ventures venture partner and former FERC Commissioner, to its board of directors.
“The Copper Labs team is on a mission to help utilities plan for a future of tense and limited resources, all while re-creating delivery systems fit for purpose,” said Brownell. “I am excited to support the team in empowering customers and partnering with mature industries that are adapting to rapidly changing externalities for a more sustainable future.”
Copper Labs is essentially unlocking a wealth of data that utility companies haven’t had access to until now — especially important in a world where real-time data is a potential driver for behavior change. For example, it makes no sense to tell a consumer that he was charging his Tesla during peak hours 11 days ago – at that point the end user cannot remember why he plugged his car in. At that point, the damage to their electricity bills — and the environment — was already done.
“Historically, demand management programs on the residential side have primarily focused on connected smart thermostats, enabling [them] to reduce the load during peak periods. In this way, the utilities reduce dependence on expensive and dirty gas peak plants. The challenge here is that connected smart thermostats are being installed in less than 20% of American homes, and maybe half of those people are enrolling in these monitoring programs,” explains Forman. “It doesn’t cover all the other issues that are on the way, for example EV chargers. Not only do you need real-time grid edge intelligence, but you also need a channel to engage targeted users. For example, being able to see who is charging an EV charger during peak hours is valuable information for a utility company. They can then target that person with an incentive to limit the load.
The company has a few different solutions; an in-home bridge that connects existing smart meters to an internet connection, and a neighborhood-scale solution that can do the same for tens to thousands of homes.
“Some Smart Grid meters have a ZigBee Home Area Network built in. We can make a safe handshake and get that data back at about 30 second intervals instead of waiting until the next day. To install it, the utility would send a device by mail. You would install the Copper mobile app and plug everything in,” Forman explains, holding up a brick the size of a laptop charger that plugs into a wall outlet. “You just plug this thing into the wall and all it does is wireless.”
The neighborhood solution does the same and requires its own internet connection, wired or via existing wireless networks. It can be installed on a utility pole and serve a wider range of homes.
“Our neighborhood-level device pulls data from hundreds of homes at approximately one-minute intervals from a single device,” Forman says. “The value there is clearly a dramatic reduction in home hardware costs. You don’t have to ask the consumer anything and you don’t have to rely on the consumer’s Wi-Fi because you have a dedicated broadband or wireless network.”
The nice thing is that Copper’s device can also track the production meters of solar energy, to show which electricity is generated and supplied to the grid. The company claims that this is a unique view, especially powerful for the utilities that do not have a view of the distributed solar panels on the roof. The app also enables anomaly detection, usage data, and additional insights.
“With or without smart meters, Copper Labs is opening a high-frequency database for consumers, utilities and smart home providers to enable faster decision-making,” said Dr. Carolin Funk, partner at Blue Bear Capital.
In a nutshell, the problem the company is solving is to make legacy networks smarter than even the most advanced smart grids, bypassing the slower innovation cycles of the meter suppliers. Moreover, Copper’s solution is much cheaper, faster and more environmentally conscious to install on a power pole than to replace a hundred good and usable energy meters at house level.
If this sounds like something the utilities should have been able to solve on their own, then you’re right – but it’s interesting to highlight the challenge of what’s being solved here; the number of radios and wireless connections that must be in place for a solution like this to work is mind-boggling.
“What we focus on is solving really difficult RF problems to where the same device can do electricity, gas and water. And if you look back at the new neighborhood-level thing I mentioned, gas and water companies don’t have an effective path to get to traditional advanced metering infrastructure,” explains Forman.
This post Copper Labs brings joy to utilities by making their meters smarter – TechCrunch was original published at “https://techcrunch.com/2022/03/15/copper-labs-series-a/”