Utilities have a problem: their smart grids were built to solve decade-old billing problems, not the needs and expectations of 2022 consumers obsessed with electric cars, solar panels and real-time data. Copper Labs has raised $5.5 million to help solve this problem by creating a nice little hardware device that acts as a bridge between a low resolution smart meter and a consumer’s internet connection.
“The problem is that even today’s most advanced smart grid implementations only tell utilities what happened yesterday, and only at 15-minute intervals,” said Dan Foreman, CEO of Copper Labs. “Many of them receive this data only once every 30 days. If you switch from electricity to gas and water, most of these people will still have access to data once every 30 days. The speed of change in the network does not match the pace of innovation. We help utilities find more cost effective ways to deliver the solutions they need.”
The company has raised $5.5 million led by Clean Energy Ventures (CEV), a venture capital firm that funds early-stage climate technology innovation, with subsequent assets from National Grid Partners and Blue Bear Capital. With a new round of funding, Copper Labs plans to expand its sales, engineering and marketing teams next year to accelerate national rollout in all useful areas. In addition to funding, Copper Labs welcomes Nora Mead Brownell, VC partner at Clean Energy Ventures and former FERC commissioner, to its board of directors.
“The Copper Labs team is on a mission to help utilities plan for a stressful and resource-constrained future by reimagining the delivery system for its intended purpose,” said Brownell. “I am excited to support the team in empowering customers and partnering with mature industries that are adapting to rapidly changing external factors for a more sustainable future.”
Copper Labs essentially opens up access to a vast amount of data that utility companies don’t yet have, which is 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 they charged their Tesla during peak hours 11 days ago — at that point, the end user cannot remember why they plugged their car into a power outlet. At that point, the damage to their energy bills—and the environment—had already been done.
“Historically, residential demand management programs have focused primarily on connected smart thermostats that allow [them] To reduce the load during peak hours. In this way, utilities reduce their dependence on expensive and dirty gas processing plants. The problem here is that less than 20% of American homes have connected smart thermostats, and maybe half of those people are on these monitoring programs,” Foreman explains. “It doesn’t cover all the other issues that come along the way, such as electric vehicle chargers. You need not only real-time network edge mining, but also a channel to interact with targeted users. For example, being able to see who is charging an electric car charger during peak hours is valuable information for a utility company. They can then target that person in order to limit the load.
The company has several different solutions; A home bridge that connects existing smart meters with internet connectivity and a neighborhood-wide solution that can do this for tens or thousands of homes.
“Some smart grid meters have a built-in ZigBee home network. We can perform a secure handshake and receive this data at intervals of about 30 seconds, instead of waiting for the next day. To install it, the utility will send the tool by mail. You would install the Copper mobile app and plug everything in,” Foreman explains, holding up a laptop charger-sized unit that plugs into a wall outlet. “You just mount this thing to the wall and it’s all wireless.”
The Neighborhood solution does the same and requires its own Internet connection, either wired or through an existing wireless network. It can be pole mounted and can serve a wide range of homes.
“Our district-level device retrieves data from hundreds of homes at about a minute intervals from a single device,” says Foreman. “TeaHe understands that the cost of home equipment has dropped dramatically. You don’t have to ask the consumer, and you don’t have to depend on the subscriber’s Wi-Fi because you have a dedicated broadband or wireless network.”
The cool thing is that Copper’s device can even track solar energy meters to show how much electricity is being generated and fed into the grid. The company says it’s a unique view, especially useful for utilities that don’t have a view of rooftop solar panels. The app also provides anomaly detection, usage data, and additional information.
“With or without a smart meter, Copper Labs is opening up a high frequency database to enable faster decision making by consumers, utilities and smart home providers,” said Dr. Caroline Funk, partner at Blue Bear Capital.
In short, the problem the company is tackling is making legacy grids smarter than even the most advanced smart grids, bypassing the slow innovation cycles of meter vendors. In addition, Copper’s solution is much cheaper, faster and more environmentally friendly to install on transmission poles than replacing hundreds of good and usable electricity meters domestically.
If it seems to you that the utilities should have solved them themselves, you are right, but it is interesting to highlight the problem that is being solved here; The number of radio and wireless connections that must be established for such a solution to work is staggering.
“What we’re focusing on is solving really complex RF problems where a single device can handle electricity, gas and water. And if you look at the new neighborhood-level thing that I mentioned, gas and water companies don’t have an efficient way to access traditional advanced metering infrastructure,” Foreman explains.