Amber Electric’s SmartShift Can Sync Your Loads To Wholesale Electricity Prices

Amber Electric SmartShift

Maverick electricity retailer Amber Electric can automatically switch on your appliances when wholesale electricity prices are low or negative.

Years ago when people first started talking about exposing consumers to the wholesale electricity price, I thought it was a bad idea as I felt most households weren’t up to the challenge of managing the risk of price spikes. So it was a happy experience for me to chat to Amber Electric co-founder and co-CEO Dan Adams, and hear that Amber’s solution to this is a guarantee their customers will save money over the course of a year.

Since I spend more time looking at technology than the retail market, I’m late to Amber Electric, but Dan and I were talking through the company’s SmartShift service, currently in beta in Adelaide.

For others who are in the position I was until Friday, Amber Electric ignores the traditional retailer model – buying electricity at the wholesale price, and buying financial hedges that let them turn the variable price into a fixed price for the householder. 

Amber Electric doesn’t “buy electricity” at all – the customer buys their power from Energy Locals – and what Amber does is expose the real time wholesale price to the customer, so they can shift their usage to cheaper times.

There’s currently no financial reason for customers to manage their usage according to the wholesale price, because you’re paying 35c per kWh (or whatever) no matter the upstream price (with the exception of the blunt instrument of off-peak water heating).

As an Amber customer, you watch the app on your phone and when the wholesale price falls, you power up the pool pump, aircon, water heater or the EV charger. And if the price is rising, you cut your usage. 

As well as the wholesale electricity price, the company’s app shows users the real-time percentage of renewables in the grid, and a renewables forecast over the next 12 hours.

As Dan told us, that model assumes a very engaged customer – and that’s what SmartShift is about.

“Our customers now are very engaged,”

he said, but for the Amber model to take off, it needs automation.

In the South Australian beta, Amber Electric is:

“optimising household batteries, hot water services, and pool pumps to use electricity when it’s getting cheaper; and to export power to the grid when the price is higher.”

With just hot water services and pool pumps under management, Amber believes it can save customers $150 to $200 over 12 months. When batteries are integrated into SmartShift, the company expects savings to increase by another $200 to $400 a year.

Get Ready For Automation

Amber Electric’s contribution is of course the computing infrastructure (including cloud-to-cloud integration between Amber and South Australian partner SolarEdge) that supports the app and provides the renewables forecasts to customers. 

“The objective of our algorithm is to minimise electricity costs, and maximise export price,” he said. “We have a fixed subscription fee of $10 / month, so our incentive is to have customers save as much as possible.”

A partnership with Ohmie provides the smart switches and smart plugs needed to control loads. Customers signing up to the Adelaide trial don’t need to buy the smart switches.

“We have an $800k grant from the SA Government so there’s no cost to the customer.”

 

“The pool pump needs to run a set number of hours a day, so we set it to run at the cheapest times. And it makes sense to heat up hot water during the cheapest two hours of the night, using excess wind when wholesale prices are cheap.”

SmartShift is already integrated with SolarEdge battery customers using LG Chem batteries, with Tesla Powerwall next.

“We’re just about to finish our integration with Tesla to make Powerwall 2* part of SmartShift”, Dan said.

Batteries are already compatible with VPP operations, and don’t need additional hardware or software. The next target for integration will be electric vehicles.

*Update: An earlier version of this story included the first-version Powerwall on the integration list in error. Only Powerwall 2 batteries will be integrated with SmartShift.

About Richard Chirgwin

Richard Chirgwin is a journalist with more than 30 years' experience covering a wide range of technology topics, including electronics, telecommunications, computing and science.

Comments

  1. Matthew Lacey says

    Electric Vehicle charging based on wholesale price will be a game changer, particularly if it can be used by businesses too.

    I’m on 3-phase, so my max continuous draw is 30kw. My Zoe can pull 22kw continuous (well, till the 40kwh battery is full). it would take 3 or 4 powerwalls to match that.

    • Ronald Brakels says

      If you could send 22 kilowatts into the grid when the price is over $10 per kilowatt-hour — now that would be awesome.

      • Matthew Lacey says

        a firmware change in the zoe could unlock this – the hardware already supports it.

        • Ronald Brakels says

          I know the equipment necessary for a Nissan Leaf to feedback into the grid is crazy expensive, but if the Zoe can do it without further cost that is very good news. But I do suspect you’d need to invest in a bi-directional charger like the Wallbox Quaser, which are currently crazy expensive for what they do as they have a peak power of only 7.4 kilowatts and are around $10,000. Obviously there is plenty of room for these kind of chargers to come down in price.

          • Matthew Lacey says

            The leaf solution is expensive as you need an inverter connected via chademo, which is rather expensive to do (especially in small volume)

            The Zoe *is* the inverter.
            Fun fact, on 3-phase with a 6A charge command, the car actually winds up exporting around 500W (lessson here is don’t try to charge a zoe slower than 10A on single or 3-phase)

            The zoe uses the motor windings as an inductor and the motor controller as the inverter, whereas, all other cars use separate power electronics to act as a charger. It’s inherently bi-directional (though pf and efficiency isn’t as good, particularly at low charge rates)

          • Ronald Brakels says

            That is interesting and looking it up, I see large scale V2G testing was done last year in Netherlands and Portugal without the need for expensive bi-directional chargers.

  2. My only issue with these ´boxes´ (ie not restricted to the one mentioned) is they are fairly pricey.
    My recommendation for Hot Water is to use a simple (ensure battery backed!) timeswitch together with the important Contactor to time switch the storage Hot water system on for about 4 hours, during the middle of the day. (This is usually a conversion from Off-Peak metering). The advantage of the timeswitch is the Hot water will always be heated, even on a cloudy day (at a cost occasionally).
    Saving the connection cost for the off-peak (around 80c/day in NSW). Also in many cases, moving to Time of Use can result in a saving (but compare plans carefully). In my case moving to TOU will save about $70 a quarter.
    As far as EV charging goes, many modern EVSE´s will allow timed charging to make the most of lower cost off-peak TOU tariffs, as well as allowing the charger to be switched on after the PV system is normally producing. Again, the ´smart´ boxes often do not give better control anyway.
    When things like Air Conditioners are considered, again they can be timed to start during the day without needing any extra boxes.
    So, personally, I am currently setting up 2 of OpenEVSE´s for my EVs, as well as an IoTaWatt (Open Source) monitor on my power circuits (Works with multi-phase, has heaps of current transformer inputs & very reasonably priced from the US). This feeds into an EmonCMS server for full monitoring, as well as allowing control. Not a setup for the general public, but great for technically minded pundits!
    btw, my personal HWS is a close-coupled Edwards unit (now 25 yrs old, Thermosyphon), so I have a timeswitch set to turn on at 3AM, & off at 6AM, with a series on-off switch for boosting if the water goes cold (an event that rarely happens). If I was building a house now, I would use a simple storage HWS (or even multiple to keep the pipe runs short in a big house) redirecting the PV as above. Even though inefficient, the savings are big during construction & a larger PV system can be specified to compensate.

    • Hot Water:
      The best way to heat water varies by individual household. Using daytime solar PV may not be cheaper than overnight off-peak. It depends on your relative import and export tariffs.

      Dedicated circuits:
      The daily charge (retail) for a dedicated off-peak circuit in NSW is ~15c/day, not 80c/day.

      TOU:
      A lot of people with solar PV are better off with flat rate plans than TOU plans. But like hot water, it varies by individual household. We happen to be better off with TOU but that’s not the norm for homes with solar PV.

  3. chris cynkar says

    is this available on Adelaide yet ?

  4. When Amber says:
    “We have a fixed subscription fee of $10 / month, so our incentive is to have customers save as much as possible.”

    I don’t follow the logic.

    How does a fixed monthly fee translate into an incentive to “save the customers as much money as possible”? Seems a rather tenuous link.

    A fixed monthly fee is an incentive to have as many customers as possible, not necessarily save them as much as possible.

    And when you write:
    “So it was a happy experience for me to chat to Amber Electric co-founder and co-CEO Dan Adams, and hear that Amber’s solution to this is a guarantee their customers will save money over the course of a year.”

    How does Amber guarantee this?

    Save money compared with what?

    If Amber can guarantee their plan will cost less than the cheapest retail plan available or that I am currently using, then I might sign up (hint, my current retail plan works out to be $375/year cheaper than Amber’s wholesale cost pass through model).

    But if they mean power bills will go down because they turn off your aircon when it’s filthy hot, then no thanks.

    Don’t get me wrong, I really like what Amber is doing. But blanket statements assuming it’ll save money concern me as it just isn’t true.

    The biggest challenge IMO is being able to reliably and accurately make a comparison of Amber with retail plan options. It’s a task beyond the reach of most. Requires gathering a lot of data on all the local network, distribution and environmental fees and charges (daily and per kWh, and working out if it’s flat or TOU network rates, as well as distribution loss factors), plus the half hourly wholesale price data for a year and matching that with your half hourly import and export data for the year.

    How many have actually bothered to do all that to actually know if such a plan is better? (I have).

  5. Ian Garradd says

    Very happy with Amber to date.
    The app makes it easy to see when power is expensive, or cheap – when there is lots of solar in the grid during the day.

    Our solar charges up the heat pump for the HWS – between 10 & 2 each day. (disconnected from off-peak when we got the heat pump)

    Our guests in the Airbnb charge their electric cars during the daytime peak when here is max. rooftop solar & cheapest grid prices – typically between 15 & 17c/ kWh

  6. I am on Amber, and am a happy customer.

    I am on the solar sponge network tariff, so have very low day time prices. I can use my PV export, or get more from the grid at low network prices with generally low energy prices (as low as overnight prices in SA).

    My old off-peak load was underfloor heating (3-phase) so it isn’t on the trial. But it will be managed via a contactor and time switch, providing windows of 1am to 6am (network off-peak, 50% of single rate and same as OPCL) and 10am-3pm (network solar sponge, 25% of single rate).

    It isn’t all ‘happy days’ though. I am also exposed to pool price for my PV exports, and particularly on weekends when daytime energy prices can be negative in SA, I have to pay to have my panels exporting. But the savings on usage far exceed the lower price of solar exports in SA for me.

    Something automated will be great for me, eg managing my floor heating and my PV export, and possibly managing my air-con on extreme high price days. That is for the future. In the meantime, I have the summer coming, and being prepared to perhaps go to the local hotel or pictures on a hot day if the pool price goes really high eg VOLL. One or two days of that and my savings during the year could disappear. Or, turn off the air-con and go out for an hour or three.

    Looking forward to the automation development. Good work Amber.

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