WattTime Gives Clean Power to the People

How one nonprofit is disrupting traditional energy consumption — at your convenience

It is no secret that slowing the catastrophic effects of climate change will require a transition from fossil fuels to clean energy. The bad news is that this transition can be prohibitively expensive and difficult to make. In 2015, University of California, Berkeley made major headway in converting its campus to clean energy. And they did it with unprecedented effortlessness.

Conversion of a large building to clean energy usually means significantly more expensive energy bills or investments in infrastructure, like a rooftop solar array. But by installing fist-sized pieces of hardware onto heating and ventilation systems in four large undergraduate housing buildings — some of them nine stories high and housing 230 students — Berkeley permanently diverted much of its biggest energy expenditures in these residential buildings to clean energy. No monthly fee and no new infrastructure. Soon, the same technology will be used in over 100 buildings on campus.

This seamless milestone toward clean energy was made possible by WattTime, a nonprofit with massive potential to change the way the country uses energy.

“We believe that you, not your utility company, should have control over where your power comes from,” says WattTime Co-founder Gavin McCormick.

Buildings at UC Berkeley that are powered primarily by clean energy through WattTime.

When Consumers Have Control

Throughout the day, devices and buildings draw electricity from the grid, which supplies energy from different power plants. One minute it might be pulling energy primarily from solar, and the next, from coal. WattTime operates by using publicly available data to detect when there is clean energy on the grid and then instructing connected devices to power up accordingly.

WattTime could be enabled on any device that draws power and is connected to the internet, but they are focusing largely on household heating and cooling systems, the source of 40% of national energy consumption.

“People spend about eight minutes a year thinking about their energy bill,” says Anna Schneider, who co-founded WattTime with McCormick. With WattTime, she explains, “You can spend those eight minutes feeling good but not actually having to take any action because you have already taken the action that matters.”

McCormick and Schneider are confident that adoption will be swift because WattTime imposes virtually no inconvenience on consumers. The technology costs nothing for consumers and requires no extensive installation. WattTime simply gives people volition over what kind of energy they want to support — a one-time decision that permanently affects the impact of their consumption. Their goal, according to McCormick: “Package the solution in a way that no one could ever say no to.”

Anna Schneider gives a demo of the WattTime enabled Energate thermostat.

Their objective is currently being tested. A WattTime-enabled thermostat is now available on the market and a pilot program has placed WattTime-enabled thermostats in about 50 homes in the Chicago area. Through the pilot, McCormick and Schneider hope to learn more about households’ willingness to adopt the thermostat and about its impact on greenhouse gas emissions.

Putting Clean Energy On The Grid

WattTime’s ambitions go far beyond household heating. Their ultimate goal is to create far-reaching impact that helps the U.S. overcome major hurdles and meet its clean energy goals.

One of the obstacles our current energy system creates is known as curtailment, the oversupply and consequential waste of clean energy. For example, on a particularly windy day a wind-power plant will generate a great deal of clean energy. But if consumers aren’t demanding that much power at that specific time, the local utility company must find a place for the extra energy — too much (or too little) energy on the grid at one time results in blackouts. To avoid a blackout, grid managers sometimes force the wind farm to temporarily shut down its operations entirely in favor of less variable, far dirtier sources of energy such as coal. The abundant clean wind energy then goes to waste.

Because of curtailment, abundantly available clean energy may be prevented from reaching entire cities, putting California at risk of not reaching its clean energy goals. WattTime can change this by powering up devices at opportune moments.

Although the rapidly increasing amount of clean energy on the power grid is hailed as a good thing, this increase has made curtailment a major cause for concern in the world of energy innovation. One energy management system in California predicts that curtailment might be so significant in the 2020s that it could prevent the state from reaching its clean energy goals.

WattTime offers a potential solution by countering an oversupply of energy with a surge in demand. Because WattTime-enabled devices typically have some variability on when they require power —e.g. electric vehicles are plugged in all night but only need a few hours to charge — those devices could be configured to consume energy when it’s available as opposed to when it’s actually being used. Imagine an entire city’s worth of refrigerators all ramping up power consumption when a burst of wind becomes available. This spike in demand uses the energy already being created, preventing it from being wasted.

WattTime enables consumers to prioritize what kinds of power they will consume.

“That is energy that those devices would not have to pull from dirty energy sources later in the day,” Schneider explains. “It’s really a big problem but there’s a lot we can potentially do. That is my personal motivation for doing a lot of this work.”

Looking Forward to the End of Energy Ignorance

Beyond convenience and affordability, WattTime has the potential to appeal to customers through personalization. Imagine an online interface that allows you to rank which causes are most important to you: coral reefs, wind energy, nuclear power. In the future, consumers may be able to decide which environmental and societal practices they want to support or boycott. Care deeply about polar bears? Just tell your WattTime device, and you’ll source energy exclusively from plants that do not emit the greenhouse gasses melting polar habitats.

The WattTime Team at their headquarters in downtown Oakland, CA.

Priorities can also extend beyond environmental causes and into socioeconomic issues. Some smog-spewing power plants are located near low-income, minority-dense neighborhoods, meaning that health impacts of that pollution are concentrated in those communities. In the future, energy consumers could avoid supporting those power plants altogether through WattTime.

McCormick envisions a few other paths forward, including one in which WattTime gives its technology away for free. In this scenario, the technology is open source and WattTime becomes a certification of sorts. With free technology and no downsides, what company or individual would opt out of clean energy?

But in McCormick and Schneider’s ideal vision of their future, WattTime would not exist at all. WattTime technology becomes the norm, and the need for an organization disappears.

“This is so doable,” asserts McCormick, “that in the long term we could declare victory and go home.”

What’s Next?

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