How EnerNOC is Evolving Smart Grids and Building Energy Management

When I first met EnerNOC co-founder Tim Healy back in 2007, he was riding high on the results of a successful IPO. Catching up with Healy just a few weeks ago, I was struck by the dimming of the outlook for cleantech in the intervening years.

Five years ago, EnerNOC's IPO was a bellwether in all-too-brief moment of exuberance for cleantech that marked that year. Listing in late May 2007 at a price of $26, EnerNOC's IPO was a hit. The share price surged 20 percent in its first day of trading, and nearly doubled to $50 within six months.

At the time, EnerNOC offered something counterintuitive amidst all the breathless coverage of next-gen solar panels and complex batteries recipes. Rather than generate clean energy, EnerNOC was helping to solve energy shortages by reducing demand.

By taking control of commercial customers' big equipment -- think office building air conditioning systems -- and turning them down briefly during periods of peak demand, EnerNOC could cut its customers' bills by negotiating discounts with utilities. The plan helped utilities too, by giving them a way to cut the risk of costly blackouts.

These days, the atmospherics around cleantech are decidedly less exuberant, damped by partisan bashing, cheap natural gas and especially economic recession. EnerNOC's stock has settled into a range just above $10 in recent months. Yet its business model has thrived and evolved, establishing demand response (or demand reduction, DR) as a fast-growing business and attracting a raft of competitors.

"We were among a small pack at the beginning competing for a land grab in the demand response market," said Healy, the company's CEO and chairman.

By most measures, EnerNOC scored well in that land grab. From a few dozen utility partners in 2007, the company now has contracts with hundreds and has expanded internationally, most recently to the United Kingdom and New Zealand. And its technology has evolved dramatically.

In the early days, said Healy, demand reduction amounted to relatively simple on-or-off decisions. During times of peak demand, equipment would simply be shut off.

"We call that DR with a machete," he said.

These days it's more like DR by microscope and tweezers. The combination of EnerNOC's remote management software and advances in customers' equipment -- from freezers to digital lighting -- make it possible to throttle down demand incrementally, following complex priorities. This ultra-fine control minimizes disruptions to operations, while delivering maximum dollar savings and maintaining grid stability.

This evolution toward automatic response technologies has accelerated DR's business, and opened new opportunities. Where requests for reductions used to arrive a day or hours ahead of anticipated needs, these days contracts call for response times of minutes or seconds.

This is drawing EnerNOC and its peers into the role of automated grid management. The company's recently-inked 150-megawatt DR project with the Alberta (Canada) Electric System Operator delivers not DR per se, but rapid response to grid variations to help maintain stability in the regional grid.

The fast-growing scale of wind and solar in recent few years has opened up a surprising variant for EnerNOC's technology that works in reverse to demand reduction. In the Northwest, the Bonneville Power Administration has experienced periods when its dams and windmills spin out too much power, which can overload the grid. So the BPA has been searching for a way to increase demand on short notice.

EnerNOC is helping it to do so. In a pilot project, EnerNOC can push excess power to commercial facilities to heat up ceramic brick room heaters and/or boost the temperature of water heaters. The technology essentially stores excess electricity as heat, which can be drawn down later.

"We're not just curtailing load. We're ramping load up too," said Healy. In addition to making more heat, making more cold also works. Cold storage facilities, for instance, can pull in surplus juice to chill their facilities to lower temperatures or make more ice, essentially storing excess load as cold.

Next Page: EnerNOC's move into grid management, 'persistent commissioning' and more.