Buy a steak at the butcher and he’ll tell you which farm it comes from. Go to the hardware store for wood products, and the owner might be able to trace it to the relevant forest. Hook up your appliances to the wall-socket and want some information about the power? Good luck. If you’re on the grid, the electricity is likely all mixed together, the clean stuff and the dirty stuff.
The lack of traceability in the power system is probably one reason it’s still so polluting. Because consumers don’t know what they’re getting day to day, they’ve got no basis with which to make alternative choices. The grid is really a black hole that only a few insiders–like grid managers and utility executives–understand.
The goal of WattTime, a new social enterprise based in Berkeley, California, is to shine a little light. It gives people intelligence about where their energy is coming from by monitoring regional auctions where utilities buy power from producers. Consumers can then run machinery when power’s at its cleanest–say, in the middle of the night, when wind farms are going at full capacity.
WattTime was founded by Gavin McCormick and Anna Schneider, two PhDs from the University of California. “It’s strange how we don’t normally know where power is coming from,” McCormick says. “And we’re curious if consumers will choose what kinds of power they use. We’re looking to a world where electricity outlets are labelled everywhere.”
WattTime isn’t on the market yet. The founders, who were recently named Echoing Green Fellows, are currently working on a “research pilot” with electric vehicle owners (one of the types of machines that might use the system in real-life). Once ready, they plan to focus on larger energy users first, like universities or manufacturers, before going to residential consumers.
“Businesses and organizations have sustainability goals they’re trying to meet,” Schneider says. “We provide new ways to do that by automating their smart equipment. They can access our software and we automatically lower their carbon footprint.”
WattTime will cover about two-thirds of U.S. market that uses large-scale “Independent System Operator” markets and which release real-time trading information. The rest of the country is made up smaller entities that are less easy to monitor from the outside. WattTime assesses the footprint of energy using EPA data for each region. You can see some data in the map Schneider and McCormick have already created (see above).
The partners were awarded $90,000 as part of their two-year fellowship with Echoing Green, which supports social entrepreneurs in a variety of ways, such as providing mentoring and health insurance.
Schneider is excited to get WattTime off the ground. “I was blown away that there was data out there that would allow people to choose energy based on the time it was available,” she says. “It’s been so much fun over the past year to build up this idea of using clean energy by using it at the best time.”