AutoGrid Recruits Army Of Heat Pumps For Virtual Power Plants

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The ant-climate chickens have come home to roost at the US Supreme Court, but that doesn’t mean the climate fight is over. Far from it. The seeds of change have already been sown in millions of homes and businesses across the land. That’s right, humble little heat pumps are emerging as planet-saving heroes of epic proportions, and the firms AutoGrid and Willdan have big plans in store for them.

Connecting The Heat Pump Dots: Step 1, Generation Shifting

For those of you new to the topic, heat pumps are electric appliances that work like a refrigerator, only both ways. They can provide cooling or heating for HVAC systems (heating, ventilating, air conditioning), depending on the need — and yes, heat pumps work in cold climates, too.

Now factor in the idea that electric utilities can sell more kilowatts if they convince building owners — homes, offices, businesses or whatever — to switch from a gas- or oil-fired HVAC system to an electric heat pump.

If that’s beginning to sound like generation shifting, it is, only on a micro scale and not the macro scale envisioned by the authors of the EPA Clean Power Plan. In fact, just last year the Energy Department’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory cited heat pumps as an important element in the shift to a carbon neutral economy.

In an interesting twist, some utilities are also trying to convince their electricity customers to ditch propane tanks, wood stoves, and other non-regulated sources in favor of heat pumps. That generation shifting trend is evident even in West Virginia, which was instrumental in bringing down the Clean Power Plan.

Heat Pumps Step 2, Virtual Power Plants

The role of electric utilities in motivating heat pump adoption is complicated, because many of them are also sell natural gas for HVAC and other appliances. Still, the heat pump trend can benefit gas-and-electric utilities, by enabling them to reduce or eliminate the need to build expensive new gas powered “peaker” plants and new gas pipelines.

That may sound counter-intuitive, but that’s where virtual power plants kick in. All else being equal, more heat pumps would increase the daily load on power generation, eventually leading to the need for new power plants. Instead, virtual power plants enable utilities to coordinate the electricity use of thousands of individual ratepayers, sparking a shift away from normal hours of peak use.

Virtual Power Plants & Generation Shifting

VPPs focus on both load-shifting and generation-shifting. The two are tightly linked by the advent of low-cost wind and solar power.

Virtual power plants provide opportunities to shuttle more intermittent sources of energy, namely wind and solar power, into the electricity grid while reducing the need for expensive new energy storage facilities.

Virtual power plants also dovetail with the distributed energy resources trend. Even without the benefit of a full-blown VPP, ratepayers who own rooftop solar panels and other resources can get cash from their local utility when they contribute their on-site kilowatts to the grid.

In addition, utilities are beginning to leverage VPPs to spur energy efficiency retrofits and energy efficiency in new construction.

Step 3: The Energy Storage Angle, Hot Water Heater Edition

If that thing about energy storage caught your eye, join the club. VPPs can also coordinate small-scale energy storage devices, including electric vehicles as well as stationary batteries, by incentivizing their owners to participate.

That’s all well good for those who can afford to buy electric vehicles and lithium-ion battery packs. As for tens of millions of others, heat pump water heaters provide a more affordable way to participate.

After all, hot water is a form of energy storage. Anyone who owns a heat pump hot water heater could juice it during periods when electricity demand is low, and still enjoy hot water during periods when they are asked to turn off their heat pumps.

Heat pump water heaters are relatively new on the scene. Just a couple of years ago the Electric Power Research Institute took a look at the topic, and noted that the cost advantage over natural gas water heaters was in need of clarification.

Regardless, the global heat pump water heater market is not waiting around fur further clarification. Earlier this year the firm Markets and Markets ran the numbers and projected the size of the market to grow to $2.1 billion by 2026, compared to $1.4 billion in 2020.

“Factors driving the growth of the heat pump water heater market include the energy efficient technology along with the usage of non conventional sources of energy to heat the water,” they noted (emphasis added).

The Autogrid Angle On Hot Water Heat Pumps

Against this backdrop, the well-known energy management software firm AutoGrid has hooked up with the should-be-well-known firm Willdan to cook up a scheme that deploys heat pump water heaters in virtual power plants.

The plan involves replacing gas-fired water heaters, with the aim of adding “significant levels of flexible grid capacity” to the sprawling California wholesale energy market, CAISO.

“The flexible capacity, when combined with other resources managed by AutoGrid’s VPP platform, strengthens the grid and helps reduce the probability of blackouts during periods of peak energy demand,” they explain.

As for the overlap between VPPs and generation-shifting, the shift is definitely on. AutoGrid is on a mission to enable “utilities, electricity retailers, renewable energy project developers, and energy service providers to deliver clean, affordable, and reliable energy in a distributed energy world.”

“Collaboration with Willdan places heat pump water heaters into appropriate distributed energy resource (DER) programs which will have a positive impact on the environment while also providing customers with an additional revenue stream,” they add.

So. There. For the record, Willdan is all over the shift to clean power. This year alone the company won decarbonization contracts with New York City, Utah State University (one of the biggest energy consumers in the state), and National Grid. The National Grid contract is especially interesting because it involves an incentive system to for “gas-saving improvements across multiple building  systems,” with the proceeds going to cover the cost of “gas-saving projects” for low- and middle-income ratepayers.

Next Steps For Climate Action

The real concern over the US Supreme Court is the apparent willingness of the 6-3 majority (all appointed by Republican presidents, for the record) to upend the entire civic and social fabric of the nation in favor of a state that is part theocratic, part authoritarian, and all a seething bundle of raw emotion disguised as “originalism.”

Have at it. Considering the public reaction to the ruling on Roe v. Wade, the six Republican-appointed Justices on the Court have already dug themselves — and their party — into a tar pit by exposing the long history of linkage between white violence, white supremacy, and the anti-abortion movement.

The new Clean Power Plan ruling only makes it all the more likely that the November elections will empower enough new climate action allies in Congress to neutralize the worst excesses of a Supreme Court super-majority run amok — but only if enough voters pick up the climate warrior ball and run with it.

Follow me on Twitter @TinaMCasey.

Image: Virtual power plants, renewable energy via Willdan (screenshot).

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Tina Casey

Tina specializes in advanced energy technology, military sustainability, emerging materials, biofuels, ESG and related policy and political matters. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on LinkedIn, Threads, or Bluesky.

Tina Casey has 3326 posts and counting. See all posts by Tina Casey