Energy Savings Can Be Fun, But No Need To Turn Off All The Lights

Mar 7, 2017
Originally published on March 7, 2017 11:01 am

A new company is doing more than just monitoring electricity use.

It's making tracking your electrical data fun.

Steve Reed of San Diego says he signed up for free with OhmConnect. He was eager to see how much his family could cut back on electricity at times when there is a high demand for it in the area.

Soon, he got a text prompting him to lower use for an hour — from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m. the next day.

"The easiest thing in the beginning is to just avoid big power usage," he says. "The big item for most people is actually their air conditioner or their heater, a stove or an oven or a microwave. The big big-ticket items."

On days when there is a high demand for electricity, extra power plants have to turn on, and they tend to be more polluting.

"Any individual person couldn't really do much about this," he says. "This is something you can do that's very easy, and it helps."

Reed figures that if enough people take similar action, a dirtier power plant could be kept from turning on, which he says is the ideal scenario.

The service includes an interactive map of where your electricity is coming from. Curtis Tongue, one of OhmConnect's co-founders, says it makes climate change and pollution less remote and gives people a way to do something purposeful.

After the designated hour is over, the company compares how much you used with what you usually use.

Then, it credits you for it.

"When our users save energy, they earn points," Tongue says. "We have a dashboard that we've built out that's kind of gamified energy saving."

On the dashboard, users can see accumulating points and cash them out via PayPal. Or they can play in teams and pool the points to donate. In one instance, a group of users from a school community gave to the PTA.

Average savings are around $100 a year.

Other electric companies have similar programs. But at GTM Research, analyst Elta Kolo says she watches OhmConnect because although it's young, it's caught on with some 100,000 users.

"It's attracting I would say more of the younger customers that are into having more data analyzed in their daily lives, you know, where you need an app for everything," Kolo says.

To understand how the company makes money for itself, think of electricity as a market. OhmConnect can promise the market that not as much power will be needed. That promise is worth money. Once, the company was able to get the power equivalent of 11,000 homes off the grid.

But Reed's advice for new users is to not be too extreme.

"I've heard of people literally unplugging their refrigerators for the hour and just sitting in the dark and all this crazy stuff, and there's really no reason to do that," he says.

It may be best to just focus on the easy things, like the thermostat. Just like with 10,000 steps or 8 hours of sleep, small changes add up.


Ingrid Lobet is a reporter with the nonprofit journalism organization inewsource in San Diego.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Let's say you were asked to monitor how much electricity you used. You would be thinking, like I really have time for that. Then again, I know some of you count your steps each day. You also track how many hours you sleep. Ingrid Lobet reports on a company that noticed your interest in keeping tabs on things and saw an opportunity to save energy.

INGRID LOBET, BYLINE: At his home in San Diego, Steve Reed explains what happened when he signed up free with the company OhmConnect. He was eager to see how much his family could cut back electricity at times when the grid was stressed. Soon, he got a text prompting him to lower use from 5 to 6 p.m. the next day.

STEVE REED: The easiest thing in the beginning is to just avoid big power usage. The big item, for most people, is actually the air conditioner or their heater, a stove or an oven or a microwave - the big big-ticket items.

LOBET: Reed was drawn to the idea because he knows that on days when there's high demand for electricity, extra power plants have to turn on, and they tend to be more polluting.

REED: Any individual person couldn't really do much about this. This is something you can do that's very easy, and it helps.

LOBET: If enough people take similar action, he figures, maybe you could even keep a dirtier power plant from turning on.

REED: They don't even fire them up. That's perfect. I mean, that's the ideal scenario.

LOBET: The service includes an interactive map of where your electricity is coming from. Curtis Tongue is one of OhmConnect's co-founders. He says it makes ideas like climate change and pollution less remote and gives people a way to do something.

CURTIS TONGUE: There's a peaker plant turning on just a mile, two miles, five miles away. It's turning on right now.

LOBET: After the designated hour is over, the company compares how much you used with how much you usually use and credits you for it. It's all thanks to detailed data from smart meters.

TONGUE: When our users save energy, they earn points. We have a dashboard that we built out that's kind of gamified energy saving.

LOBET: On that web dashboard, you can see your accumulating points and cash them out via PayPal. Or play in teams and pool the points to donate, for example, to the PTA. Average savings are around $100 a year.

Your electric company probably has a similar program. But at GTM Research, analyst Elta Kolo says she watches OhmConnect because although it's young, it's caught on with some 100,000 users.

ELTA KOLO: It's attracting, I would say, more of the younger customers that are into having more data analyzed in their daily lives, you know, where you need an app for everything.

LOBET: So how does the company make its money? Well, think of electricity like a market. OhmConnect can promise the market that not as much power will be needed. And that promise is worth money. One time, they were able to get the power equivalent of 11,000 homes off the grid.

Back at his home in San Diego, Steve Reed has advice for new users - don't go crazy.

REED: I've heard of people literally unplugging their refrigerators for the hour and just sitting in the dark and all this crazy stuff. And there's really no reason to do that.

LOBET: Just focus on the easy things, like the thermostat. Because just like with 10,000 steps or eight hours of sleep, small changes add up. For NPR News, I'm Ingrid Lobet in San Diego.

(SOUNDBITE OF DELICATE STEVE'S "TOMORROW")

GREENE: And Ingrid's story came to us through the nonprofit journalism organization inewsource. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.