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Saving energy is supposed to be boring. But one startup has turned reducing your personal power use into a game. It’s a game that lowers pollution, relieves demand on the grid at critical times, and even pays a little. They’ve done it using data.
To begin, you provide the company OhmConnect the login for your utility account. Then the next time high electricity demand is forecast, you’ll receive a text, usually a day or more ahead, asking whether you want to reduce your use, say, between 5 and 6 p.m.
If you opt in, you’ll be reminded again before the designated hour. Beginners usually turn off lights, the entertainment system and any heating or air conditioning. Cable and game boxes can be a significant draw even when they’re off. After a while many people decide to install smart thermostats, said OhmConnect co-founder Curtis Tongue. They allow you to schedule heating and air conditioning via your phone or tablet.
When the hour is done, the company calculates how much energy you saved compared to your personal, average use over the prior 10 days. You’re awarded points for that and the points convert to cash via PayPal, to donations, or to discounts on smart devices, like the thermostats.
OhmConnect just passed 100,000 users across California. The startup’s best hour so far amounted to a 14 megawatt reduction in use, about enough to power 11,000 California homes.
The firm makes money by selling the saved megawatts to utility companies, including San Diego Gas & Electric. Or it can sell them on the wholesale electricity market. For the utility company, the saved megawatts are worth as much as megawatts of electricity generated.
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OhmConnect is not the only company in the business of reducing demand. SDG&E alone is contracting with four other businesses this year in a pilot: Stem, AutoGrid Systems Inc., WeatherBug Home and Chai Energy.
And long before companies like these were allowed into the market, the utility companies themselves offered customers programs for lowering use during critical times. It’s “one of the first resources we look for, because the energy you don’t use is the cleanest of all,” SDG&E’s Hanan Eisenman said in an email.
SDG&E programs saved enough electricity to power more than 158,000 homes in 2016, he said, during 14 high use days.
But most companies have focused on what industrial and commercial electricity users can do when they cut back. There has been less attention to what homeowners and renters – residential customers – might accomplish. And as for the game aspect, OhmConnect may have that to itself, for now.
The company has adapted in response to user behavior. People can now save energy together in teams after OhmConnect noticed a number of users cashing out using the same Paypal account, Tongue said. It turned out they were part of a school community and had decided to pool their earnings for the PTA.
Extra points are awarded for referrals. That’s a common marketing tool, but it also turns out word of mouth may be the best way to explain a concept that is still novel.
The platform has one other interesting aspect: It allows you to see on a map specifically where your electricity is coming from. “We analyze California’s electricity market every 5 minutes across roughly 4,000 locations,” Tongue said. That lets the company predict which power plants are on, “at a tight, local level.” The map shows which facilities are gas-fired, solar, wind, hydro or biomass.
Steven Reed who lives in the Torrey Hills neighborhood near Carmel Valley was an early adopter and said he has now told nearly everyone he knows about OhmConnect. His advice – don’t go crazy. “I have heard of people literally unplugging their refrigerators for the hour and sitting in the dark,” he said. “There’s no reason to do that.” Refrigerators use most of their energy recooling after the door is opened, so he says, just don’t open the door for the hour.
Reed has racked up points with referrals and cashes out more than $100 per year, but for him the draw is making an actual difference in emissions from power plants.
When demand is high, utility companies turn on extra power plants that tend to run dirtier than the everyday ones.
Until now, Reed said, the average person could do nothing about that, except perhaps reduce home use by a single kilowatt hour. “But if you combine that with millions of people, there is potentially a massive change there. That’s the exciting part.”