Electric generation windmills in a field at sunrise.

Throughout 2020, it was widely reported that the temporary closures of coal-fired plants, coupled with dramatic reductions in travel, led to greenhouse gas reductions of 9% compared to the year before. For us, these early findings were incredible and gave us all the first-ever insight into what it would take to achieve meaningful, and longer-overdue, reductions in CO2 emissions. For the first time, we truly saw the effectiveness of systems-level change, and this has helped us underscore the need to think — and act — big in 2021.

Just this week, a new report from the Solar Energy Industries Association and Wood Mackenzie estimated that solar power jumped an astonishing 43% higher than in 2019 in the United States. This was especially encouraging given a miserable first half of the year, and there was widespread concern that cleantech companies would be left out in the cold from federal recovery and stimulus packages.

As we round the corner into 2021, it’s important to consider how far we’ve come. In the same vein, however, we have to constantly ask the questions: how are we preparing consumers and energy users to adapt to a grid powered by renewable energy?

We cannot have one without the other, which is why we’ve engaged our team of experts to help us identify the top 5 energy trends for 2021.

  1. The transition to cleaner energy will be enabled through enhanced demand-side management
    2020 was the year of clean energy commitments by dozens of utilities and policymakers at nearly every level of government across the U.S. The momentum for clean energy was already building, and we anticipate the pace of deployment will increase dramatically starting in 2021. While 100% clean energy does not always mean 100% renewable energy, supply from more variable solar and wind energy is going to be increasingly dynamic. Demand-side management programs and customer engagement, particularly demand response or time-of-use rates, will be important to balance this variable supply with the load. In other words, efficiency will be important. But the time in which energy is used will be increasingly so.

  2. A new beginning for time-varying rates (out with the pilots, in with the standard)
    After decades of time-of-use pilots, 2021 could be the year that default or opt-out rates become standard. The major California utilities started their rollout in 2020 and should have most residential customers on TOU rates by the end of 2021. Xcel Energy is waiting on regulatory approval in Colorado. Utilities in Arizona have as much as 70% participation in voluntary time-varying rates, including residential demand charges. It might not all happen in 2021, but this year could be the beginning. To the point of trend number one, this will be important for the clean energy transition, as well as for utilities and customers who are both looking to keep bills low.

  3. Increasing direct customer value from AMI metering
    AMI metering has been deployed across the vast majority of electric meters in North America (natural gas meters are another story). Utilities that have AMI meters are seeking new opportunities to deliver direct customer value, as utilities with AMR are hearing the same from regulators. Traditionally, reduced costs from remote meter reading and outage detection have been part of the indirect customer value that AMI has enabled. The next wave of value is likely to include more direct engagement with customers from consumer portals, demand management, EV and solar support and, as previously mentioned, time-varying rates.

  4. Electric vehicles will increase electric demand and potentially change load profiles 
    Many of us will miss our stick shift. But the acceleration of EVs, low-cost to fuel up, and environmental benefits make up for it. 2020 was the year to which the major automakers pointed, but it has come and is almost gone. With that, consumers have a wide array of EV options, not just low-range economy vehicles. SUVs and trucks make up the majority of new car sales in the U.S., and electric models are now available with ranges of more than 300 miles. The increase in EV sales and associated charging is expected to increase energy load by as much 10 TWh in the next decade and increase afternoon/evening peaks if charging goes unmanaged. For that reason, many utilities are actively planning EV programs, and more investments in managed charging are expected in 2021.

  5. Smart devices are having their breakout moment
    Holidays are about more than gift-giving. But the seasonal food, music and change in weather make many of us appreciate the comforts in life that are enabled by household items like kitchen appliances, speakers and thermostats. As the technology improves and business models evolve, the connected aspect of these appliances creates an opportunity not just for comfort but for direct value from energy savings or utility rebates.  Smart thermostats have become relatively commonplace for utility programs. Don’t forget about other major energy usage in the home from water heaters, heat pumps, dryers, EVs and, with all the holiday cooking, dishwashing. The ecosystem is coming together for a better onboarding experience, enhanced data science and machine learning, not to mention more time spent at home to benefit from smart devices.