San Francisco startup links California residents’ smart meter data to smartphones and internet-connected smart home devices so they can help save energy when it’s needed most.
As people around the world celebrate Earth Day on April 22, there is a growing number of people in California earning money for the energy they’re saving on almost any given day.
San Francisco startup OhmConnect sends text messages to subscribers’ phones alerting them to reduce energy use in their homes during high demand periods. The collective impact can mean that California power companies don’t have to fire up an additional power plant to handle high demands in particular areas.
“It’s like having a power plant remote control in your pocket,” said Curtis Tongue, OhmConnect co-founder and chief marketing officer.
OhmConnect is free to use. Subscribers learn where their power comes from, get alerts when energy prices spike, receive visual analysis of home energy use and get tips for reducing overall energy consumption. Users earn points for lowering energy use during peak periods, and those points can be traded for cash. People can earn even more cash by linking their OhmConnect account to a Wi-Fi thermostat, smart home devices and electric car.
According to Tongue, OhmConnect is paying users $50 to more than $150 a year.
“Many see our platform as a way to subsidize their purchase of a new smart home device while giving a tangible payback to the grid,” said Tongue.
“What’s surprised us was that a group of people began donating their points to their local community.”
In 2013, Tongue and OhmConnect co-founder Matthew Duesterberg took first place at an energy data competition hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy. About six months later, they opened their service to the public and today are serving thousands of Californians.
According to a recent report by the Institute of Local Self Reliance called Beyond Utility 2.0 to Energy Democracy, the combination of smartphones and smart appliances is giving electricity customers unprecedented opportunities to manage their energy use. Key drivers behind starting OhmConnect include California’s evolving demand response regulations, the wholesale electricity market and the accessibility of smart meter data.
About 90 percent of houses in California now have a smart meter, according to Tongue.
“Smart meter data belongs to the users,” said Tongue. “We give people a new way to use it to reduce their energy footprint.”
In a recent study by research firm Forrester, the top reason U.S. smartphone owners opt in to push notification is to be alerted to timely information.
“When an app does this successfully, we found that it changes consumer behavior,” wrote Nicole Dvorak, a data scientist at Forrester, in a January blog post.
Tongue said that of the thousands of OhmConnect users, many are expressing they want more alerts and more opportunities to participate.
“We find that when people receive the alert, they act fast, so we’re figuring out the right ways to increase the number of opportunities for people to participate,” he said.
His team is also exploring game theories to keep people engaged and active. One idea pools a group of participants’ points and a randomly selected participant collects all of the points for a particular week.
Tongue said that some people have even expressed that they should have points taken away for those times when they didn’t reduce energy use during OhmHours. However, OhmConnect tries to keep the experience as positive as possible.
The goal is to get more people involved, which is increasing OhmConnect’s overall impact.
“Today we can save 100s of kilowatts on a daily basis,” said Tongue.
CEO Duesterberg told Green Tech Media recently that he’d like OhmConnect to save megawatts of energy in a day.
According to Tongue, if half of California’s population signed up for OhmConnect, the service could help people save hundreds of gigawatt hours in a year, and save money in the process.
For anyone living outside of California, Tongue recommends asking state legislatures to create energy markets that permit third party participation because this allows residents to sell their reductions back to the grid. He said anyone can visit the OhmConnect site and request the company to support a specific utility in their area.
OhmConnect’s four employees are passionate about smart energy grids. In addition to understanding the energy exchange market, their software skills have turned their service into a hub for people who want to manage internet-connected thermostats and other so-called smart home devices, even electric vehicles.
“There are a lot of personal Internet of Things devices with different interfaces, but we want to help people put them on one interface that works like a universal remote,” said Tongue.
Once all of these items are linked, OhmConnect enables users to automate what happens every time an OhmHour alert arrives, allowing people to reduce energy consumption without lifting a finger.
“It’s immediate and people find it instantly gratifying,” said Tongue.
In fact, OhmConnect has been a bit of a trendspotter, according to Tongue.
“In the past few months, we’ve seen a big jump in the number of Fiat 500E and BMW i3 electric cars being added to OhmConnect,” he said.
Behind the scenes, OhmConnect handles hordes of digital information. The company collects smart grid data from each user every 15 minutes. It balances that data with what’s happening in the energy market and combines it with weather data and zip code information to find the right people to send OhmHour alerts.
“Currently, we process hundreds of gigabytes of data each day and that is growing steadily as the user base grows and more smart devices are connected to us,” said Tongue.
The OhmConnect site also provides data visualizations that show a house’s energy consumption, including a trickle detector called “vampire use”. The site offer tips such as enabling “sleep mode” on computers, unplugging gadgets when they’re done charging and using power strips to turn off whole entertainment systems.
To sign up, visit OhmConnect.