How Tracking Energy Usage (And Competing Against Neighbors) Can Save Texans Money

Everything's bigger in Texas, including your electricity bill. TXU, a private energy provider, developed $100 million technology that gives customers a range of ways to visualize, adjust, and reduce their electricity usage, including the state’s first web-enabled thermostat and an iPhone app.

What do you get when you mix record-breaking heat, the country’s largest energy consumer and competing electric companies? (Hint: It’s not Texas toast.) It is a recipe for innovation at electric company TXU Energy.

With temperatures hovering in and around triple digits most of the summer in many of its cities, it’s no wonder the Lone Star State’s 25 million residents continue to run their air conditioners full throttle--despite warnings of rolling blackouts. Still, nearly two-thirds of people look to the energy industry for help with conservation according to the poll by the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Armed with that knowledge as well as an eye on the state’s more than 70-plus other energy providers, Jennifer Pulliam, TXU’s director of innovation took a $100 million budget and started working on ways to reduce consumption and costs. “I think of it as seed capital,” she tells Fast Company, “We were like a scrappy startup with no infrastructure in a competitive market. So we started dabbling in what would become a differentiating [set of services].”

The resulting technology gives customers a range of ways to control, track and adjust their electric consumption, including the state’s first Web-enabled thermostat and an iPhone app.

Pulliam explains that touch points at home, online and on mobile devices all feed into a free dashboard that gives customers immediate access to their electricity usage and bill estimates. Want to know how much electricity you’ve chewed up in the middle of the billing cycle? Check in via your computer or phone and get the scoop. Data is captured every 15 minutes and available to the 1.2 million customers with smart meters. 

At the risk of sounding geeky, Pulliam says the mobile app (which has been downloaded more than 50,000 times) is “so friggin’ cool because our customers are able to get so much more insight relative to what they get from other providers.” 

Admitting this is not a category that tends to interest people unless they get a big bill or the power goes out, Pulliam notes that having the data explained along with email tips on how to reduce spending has resulted in fewer calls to TXU’s help line. On the flip side she says, because the analytics rate customers' energy use against others with similar homes, there’s a new level of friendly competition between neighbors. 

She’s not expecting the call center staff to become like the lonely Maytag repairman just yet though. Last year when the AC was running full tilt in August, for example, “We had a groundswell of support from our customers calling to thank up for letting them contribute to not having rolling outages,” she says. 

Over the long term, Pulliam says these measures are beneficial to the grid and help keep prices stable. Not to mention that by helping customers manage their consumption conveniently, she’s hoping they’ll stick with TXU for a lifetime. It's an interesting paradox, she says, because as customers save an average of $300 per year (using the smart meter) TXU is sacrificing some top-line revenue.

“There are a lot of providers whose introductory rates tease people in but from our perspective the relationship is more important. We want to be a trusted advisor,” she says by offering “a lot of carrot as opposed to just the stick.” 

Follow the conversation on Twitter using the tag #USInnovation.

[Image: Felix Mizioznikov via Shutterstock]

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2 Comments

  • Reesespieces

    Get rid of coal and I will listen. Otherwise, shut the hell up.
    Hey, This is the Nuclear age if didnt know.