When a single homeowner decides to turn off her TV in the evening, the action barely registers on the electric grid. It’s one appliance in one home, out of millions. But when thousands of homeowners turn off their TVs, dim their lights, and do without their washing machines for an hour, well, then the collective impact can make a difference. Potentially it’s the difference between a grid that’s well managed and a grid that’s forced into using emergency power that’s expensive and polluting.
Since it was founded four years ago, OhmConnect has shown how aggregating the energy-saving actions of thousands of homes can add up to something worthwhile. The San Francisco startup has managed to sign up 290,000 customers for its hour-long “demand response” events, gathering small shifts in behavior into something larger and more meaningful. These days, several Californian utilities pay for its services, preferring what are called “negawatts” (units of power saved) to using their plants to generate actual kilowatts and megawatts of electricity.
“A lot of people use us as an excuse to unplug and play a board game with the family,” says Curtis Tongue, cofounder of the startup, giving an extra reason why people like to participate with Ohmconnect’s programs. But freedom from evening electronic stimulation probably isn’t the main driver. Instead, it’s probably the hard cash they get for doing it. In return for reducing their power consumption, its customers are rewarded with points that can be redeemed for dollars. Tongue says a small apartment participating once a week can make $40-$50 a year. A larger home with several power-hungry appliances can save up to $200 a year. “It’s nice pocket change,” he says.
Utilities have long asked their customers to help them balance supply and demand on their networks. But traditionally “demand response” (the technical term) has involved very large consumers. An aluminum smelter owner for instance might agree to shut down on a summer’s day to offset demand from people’s air conditioners. Tongue says the industry was initially skeptical about a consumer-facing demand management business. But gradually they’ve come around: Pacific Gas and Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric are all OhmConnect customers now.