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Meet the Innovators: Aaron Berndt, Google

The head of energy industry partnerships for Google’s Nest thermostat business, Aaron Berndt, discusses the tech giant’s pandemic ‘helpfulness campaigns’, efforts to streamline smart thermostat adoption and the impending challenge of scaling distributed energy resources.

What was your first job in the utilities sector?

I officially entered the utility industry in 2010 as a program manager on Pacific Gas and Electric’s (PG&E) energy efficiency team. I was focused on researching and setting initial strategies for commercial energy management systems in that role.

What work experience or qualifications did you have before moving into the industry?

I have a mechanical engineering degree from University of Minnesota and an MBA from University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business. However, I wouldn’t say those are necessarily requirements for succeeding in the space.

During my MBA program, I completed a few energy-related internships that offered specific experience that was helpful for getting my foot in the door at PG&E post-graduation.

What has been your career highlight thus far?

I currently work at Google as head of energy industry partnerships for our Nest thermostat and demand response business and it has been extremely rewarding to watch our work as a team impact both the broader energy industry and consumers on an individual level.

When I first joined Google, smart thermostats were still in the very early stages of market adoption, and utility demand response and energy efficiency programs were just beginning to pilot.

Our team has helped design and scale utility programming into what it is today by expanding consumer participation to increase energy savings for a more reliable grid with lower energy bills.

It is fulfilling to see our impact so far and know that in many ways, we’re just getting started.

What is your golden rule for overcoming challenges at work generally?

I’ve found that the key to working in the energy space is staying positive and persistent because it is a big industry that won’t change overnight.

Did you learn anything new about collaborating or innovating as a team or business during the pandemic?

Thankfully, our team was already spread out across the country pre-pandemic, so switching to remote work wasn’t a difficult transition internally. We did have a few challenges to solve when it came to our utility partnerships and communicating with consumers during a difficult time.

Our utility partners were treading lightly in the early days of the pandemic and weren’t sure how to best communicate with their customers to continue energy efficiency and demand response program enrolment in a time of uncertainty.

It soon became clear that, with shelter-in-place orders – similar to UK lockdowns – in full effect, folks were facing higher home energy bills. To mitigate this, we worked with a few key partners to develop what we coined as “helpfulness campaigns” to ramp up communication with utility customers about the benefits of energy efficiency programs as their energy bills were climbing to give them the opportunity to automatically enroll and see savings with little effort.

Is there a standout innovation or collaboration project that you’ve worked on during your time in utilities – what made it special?

Google Nest ran a helpfulness campaign with utility firm Consumers Energy and clean energy company Uplight in the summer of 2020 to provide up to 100,000 Nest thermostats to Michigan residents to lower energy bills and drive enrolment in demand response programs.

This effort coincided with Consumers Energy’s Clean Energy Plan which outlined ambitious targets to eliminate coal and achieve net-zero carbon emissions. In order to meet these goals, it was essential that demand response program enrolment and participation climbed.

Uplight’s platform allowed the initiative to increase program enrolment by lifting barriers to entry by seamlessly integrating the option to enroll right as customers were checking out to receive their new thermostat directly through the online marketplace.

This approach was a great success and we’ve seen the exciting potential for streamlining enrolment and using utility rebate programs to increase access to low to no cost devices around the country to scale the impact of these important programs.

What excites you most about the next 10 years in the utilities sector – any trends, tech or specific innovations?

With the success of our utility partnerships to date, we’ve seen an influx of utilities reach out to partner on initiatives to scale utility customer programs to meet decarbonisation plans.

According to the Smart Electric Power Alliance, 51 utilities now have goals of carbon-free or net-zero emissions by 2050 and many of them are looking to create work streams to leverage their customer-facing programs to hit those goals.

We’re thrilled to have formed long-standing residential programming partnerships with over 70 utilities across the country and we’re eager to continue to grow these programs to implement this technology on a larger, more impactful scale.

Which issues or opportunities within the industry don’t you feel get enough airtime?

As customer-sited distributed energy resources continue to scale, regional independent system operators must develop new policies and products to fully leverage their value to the market.

This has historically been a slow moving process across US markets since they were designed and built for traditional generation rather than the distributed generation of the future.

Scaling distributed energy resources is a critical component of the clean energy transition and there is significant room for improvement the industry can tackle.