Ontario startup aims to boost energy literacy through mobile apps

Tim Johnson is a self-described energy geek, the kind of guy who has the website of Ontario’s electricity system operator set as his home page.

While the rest of us are busy on Twitter reading about Avril Lavigne’s engagement to Nickelback front man Chad Kroeger, Johnson is combing through hourly data on the operation of the province’s grid.

How much electricity are we using? What types of generation are meeting demand? Is there enough supply? How much are we importing and exporting?

People who are passionate about the industry — myself included — live and breathe this stuff. We tend, however, to assume that the general public has the same level of interest or knowledge.

“But the complexity has outpaced the level of communication that industry is providing to consumers,” said Johnson. “It’s a shame, because we really have an interesting story here in Ontario.”

We are all “gridizens” in one way or another, he said, and we’re all connected to a provincial electricity system going through a major transition. The power mix is changing. Electricity is being delivered in different ways. Electric cars are coming. Houses and buildings are getting smarter.

This modernization of the grid is going to be costly, and we are all going to pay for it. For this reason, it’s in our interest to understand what we’re getting, how it operates, and the impacts of our individual actions.

After years in the energy-industry trenches, Johnson decided to tackle the challenge of energy illiteracy head on. Last June, the Ottawa resident founded a company called EnergyMobile Studios, which is “devoted to building smart, functional, beautiful apps that simplify and save energy.”

I first learned of EnergyMobile last week after searching Apple’s App Store for energy-related iPhone applications. A free app called Gridwatch, which the company had just released, quickly caught my eye. What it offers is a clear and simple snapshot of how Ontario’s power system is performing on an hourly basis.

It tells you how many megawatts of power are being generated (it also defines a megawatt for you) and whether this is considered low, high or average for the time of day and day of the year. It then breaks down the different electricity sources that are contributing to the mix.

At 6 a.m. on Thursday, for example, it told me power generation was at 14,550 megawatts and that nuclear power represented 70.8 per cent of the mix. Hydro was at 16.1 per cent, natural gas at 9.7 per cent, wind at 1.7 per cent and coal just 0.5 per cent. Click on each source and you get even more detail: a list of each power plant in the fleet, what they’re capable of generating and how much they actually are generating during that hour.

“You can see all this information online already,” explained Johnson, pointing to the various reports and charts available on the website of Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator. But it’s not easy to find and mostly geared to energy geeks like him.

Gridwatch is designed to be anti-geek in this respect. It also goes a step further, offering information that even the government or the system operator has neglected to make publicly available, despite calls to do so from the province’s environmental commissioner.

The app tells you how many tonnes of carbon dioxide-equivalent (CO2e) emissions are being produced from the electricity system on an hourly basis, and compares this to the numbers of cars on the road or how many trees it would take to absorb these emissions.

To do this, EnergyMobile partnered up with Niagara College and carbon management software firm e3 Solutions, which spent 18 months working on a formula to accurately calculate power generation emissions in Ontario.

They basically analyzed the carbon intensity of every single power plant in the province. “It’s going further than anybody we’ve seen so far in the marketplace,” said Johnson, who feels that giving the public this information could spur meaningful behavioural changes.

“Let’s face it, people don’t have to change,” he said. “Electricity is still relatively cheap compared to other markets worldwide, and it’s reliable. Right now, you’re likely paying more for your cellphone than your power. So people have to want to change.

“But if you do want to change, you need to be dissatisfied with the way things are, and understand that if you make personal changes what the impact will be. That’s why energy literacy is so important.”

Gridwatch isn’t the company’s first app. In April, it launched a tool called Powercents (currently free, but has been priced at $1.99) that helps electricity users keep track of different time-of-use rates and when they kick in. The app can even been set to alert you when, for example, off-peak prices are in effect.

On top of that, the app offers a variety of energy saving tips and will tell you how much you can save by using certain appliances during off-peak hours instead of on-peak or mid-peak. It’s a tremendously handy tool that I can see teachers embracing as a way to educate students about energy conservation. Likewise for Gridwatch.

Johnson called both apps “passion projects” that aren’t currently money-makers for his five-person company. His hope is that the energy minister, system operator, power authority or some of the province’s utilities see the value of the tools and offer to partner up.

“We’re working right now to galvanize some deals with utilities,” he said. “We think it’s a good fit, and we’d love to be offering this on their behalf.”

EnergyMobile is working on its next two apps: Heatcents, focused on energy conservation around home heating, and Watercents, focused on water conservation. Over time, and if deals start flowing in Ontario, Johnson plans to enter new geographic markets. Some U.S. jurisdictions are already showing interest, as well as a utility in Helsinki.

“We believe Ontario is a complicated market,” he said. “If we can cut our teeth here, it really positions us to do well in other deregulated markets.”

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

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