A smaller carbon footprint? There's an app for that | May 23, 2014 | Mountain View Voice | Mountain View Online |

Mountain View Voice

News - May 23, 2014

A smaller carbon footprint? There's an app for that

Company offers cash, 'smart' thermostats in exchange for shutting off AC at peak times

by Daniel DeBolt

It might be hard to wrap your head around, but a Bay Area company is aiming to turn your home into a "virtual powerplant" — no solar panels required.

San Francisco-based Ohmconnect has created an online service to help people cash in on a fairly new federal law that allows energy savings to be sold on the same market as energy itself.

"That policy (FERC order 745) essentially said if you are a deregulated energy market in the U.S., you have to compensate these reductions the same as (energy) generation," said Ohmconnect co-founder Curtis Tongue. "We're the first company that wrapped our heads around that policy change."

The system works when dirty power plants come online and participants receive an alert text message. They can then turn off the air conditioner, for example, to get paid for saving energy. "We tell you to reduce energy use if there's a local power plant turning on that is inefficient and it drives up costs in the area," Tongue said. In effect, the energy savings of users is "replacing that power plant."

You can even allow Ohmconect to turn off your devices for you over the Internet, including Tesla electric car chargers, thermostats made by Nest and any device that can plug into a regular outlet through a Belkin WeMo switch. Users who usually pay about $100 a month for gas and electricity can generally be paid back about $5-$10 a month through the service, Tongue said.

The three-person San Francisco start-up now has about 2,000 people using the service, and Tongue predicts that "within the next couple of years, the vast majority of the U.S. is going to be moving this direction."

To promote Ohmconnect to Mountain View residents, the company is giving away thermostats made by Nest. To qualify, you must have central air conditioning and be willing to let Ohmconnect access the thermostat via the Internet to turn off the air condition when electricity demand peaks, for about 15 minutes.

"The user will receive a notification when we do this and they can override it if they'd like. If they decide to keep the AC down, they get paid for doing so, since Ohmconnect sells their energy reduction into the grid as generation," Curtis said in an email.

Ohmconnect's website also provides various charts and graphs to allows users to become easily acquainted with the reality of their own energy use, teased out of data from PG&E SmartMeters, including the "vampire load" of devices that are always on, or how much energy a refrigerator is using versus your heater or air conditioner.

Saving energy earns users points and Tongue said 50,000 points is roughly equal to about $5.

John Overstreet, an executive at Palo Alto's Communications and Power Industries, said he had accumulated 155,000 points in three months.

"I don't know if it saves me money but I do like knowing" how energy is being used, he said. "I'm pretty cheap."

While other car chargers might work with Ohmconnect, he says there isn't a way for Ohmconect to turn off his Nissan Leaf's charger. He does have a Nest, which he likes because it can tell when you've left the house and it will turn off your heating and air conditioning for you.

Overstreet said he is part of a "team" of users who are competing on the Ohmconect site against other users to reduce their energy use. "There's a portal that shows you versus your neighborhood and a team page where you see your team versus other teams, and how much they've saved," Overstreet said.

Tongue says all the competing and comparing is a big motivator.

"There's a lot of research that has shown the best way to catalyze any kind of behavior change is not the money — it's not the savings — it's really showing your usage and how you're compared to your social set," Tongue said.

Email Daniel DeBolt at ddebolt@mv-voice.com


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