Clean Tech

Breaking the Breaker Box – Enertiv and the Quantified Energy User

The way we monitor our energy use is broken.

In the offices of Urban Future Lab, high above Brooklyn’s Metrotech Center, there’s a screen covered with charts and graphs over the receptionist’s head. A light bulb is turned off, and a bar graph dips in response. The air conditioning kicks on, and another chart jumps. On the screen, a dollar amount, now reading “$79” slowly ticks upward.

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The offices of Urban Future Lab, which houses roughly 15 to 20 startups at a time

The graphs are monitoring the energy use of the tech incubator, which houses over a dozen startups focused on clean tech and infrastructure. One of the startups hosted here is Enertiv, who are unrolling a system that is giving us a look at how we’re using our energy, more closely than we’ve ever had.

And the rewards are immediate and clear.

Breaking the Breaker Box

Enertiv has two parts — the software and the hardware. The former is a series of sensors you install on a breaker box. Each sensor takes the usage information and uploads it to the cloud. Then there’s the program, where the data is analysed and charted so you can monitor it from anywhere.

Essentially, Enertiv gives you a real-time map to how you’re using your electricity — not just how much you’re using in total each month, or week or day, but specifics like when you started running the dishwasher, or when you turned off the air conditioner.

“If you turn off a light, you can see that immediately in our system,” said Felix Lipov, Lead Software Engineer for Enertiv.

This is the Enertiv hardware that is installed by your breaker box.

This is the Enertiv hardware that is installed by your breaker box. (photo via Marshall Troy Photography)

Once Enertiv has that data about what’s on and what’s off, it can combine that with information about occupancy and weather. So Enertiv knows not just that you’re running the AC, but that you’re running it at 3 o’clock in the morning when no one’s in the office and the temperature dipped below 60 degrees.

Part of the mission of Enertiv is to be be environmentally friendly, but while it’s nice to be able to know you’re saving energy, Enertiv doesn’t just shame you about your carbon footprint.

It shows you, in real time, how much money you’re spending.

Trimming the Fat

Right now, the way electricity is measured is by aggregate: everything is totaled up into a big pile, and you get charged in one fell swoop for all that use. But according to Lipov, the typical commercial office is wasting 30 percent of its energy, and it can be tough to reduce your bill if you don’t know where that waste is coming from.

“If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it,” goes the old saying.

Imagine trying to lose weight. You start eating right, exercising, counting calories… but imagine the only way you could keep track of your progress was to measure your weight once a month. Even if you cut down a few pounds, it’d be hard to know why. What if it wasn’t the healthy eating, but the exercise, and more specifically the running?

That technology has already arrived for personal health, and it’s what Enertiv wants to do for your electricity bill: show you exactly where the waste is so that you can save money and trim your bill.

“It’s the quantified self for energy,” Mr. Lipov said, “but it’s not like an energy diet, where you need to turn down the AC and be hot and uncomfortable. We’re just helping you trim the fat.”

When you’re in the dark, it can be easy to let a little waste go here and there. The word Mr. Lipov and the team return to its “transparency,” or opening up the process so that you can see as clear as day what your behavior is really producing.

The potential trouble here, however, mirrors any other part of our lives where personal data is generated en masse. Behavioral data is easy to exploit for profit, and that brand of exploitation is on the rise with the growth of Big Data. While it’s difficult to imagine the same kind of sinister potential in energy use data, there always comes a time when our personal information becomes a product.

As more and more investment dollars move toward innovation in home utilities, we can be sure that business managers and individuals won’t be the only ones interested in the data.

“People just aren’t used to seeing this…”

As you enter Urban Future Lab, the Enertiv Dashboard displays on a flat screen behind reception. The hardware is set up in the breaker room by the elevator, so the whole startup incubator is monitored.

The dashboard is covered with colorful, sleek visualizations, showing comparisons to previous weeks and the weather over top. When I visit, a green, downward-facing arrow shows that lighting use is down 14% from last Wednesday. And in the top left, is a big “$80” for how much energy has been used so far this week, up until this very moment.

“People just aren’t used to seeing this,” Mr. Lipov said, looking up at the dashboard, “They get an electrical bill, and they pay it.”

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(Click the image above for a closer look)

Seeing it in action is enough to make you wonder why these analytics haven’t been around much longer. The truth is, “smart” metering does exist, but it’s the energy companies trying to get a better look for billing purposes.

“So they charge you, that’s great, and it works for them” Mr. Lipov says, “But you as a consumer, who’s trying to decide ‘Should I install LED lights, what should I do to cut my consumption, save energy, save money?’ No idea.”

Enertiv can predict your bill within a 2-5% margin of error, which Mr. Lipov thinks is absolutely “good enough” when it comes to influencing behavior.

Selling Environmentalism

Now that they have a few success stories, the focus is on selling the product.

We know what works, we have a hand full of case studies, and we’re running pilot projects,” Mr. Lipov said.

They’ve met with luxury apartment developers, and representatives from The New School who have shown interest in Enertiv, but the key is to find people who have the need to start cutting back.

Take NYU, which foots the energy bill for students regardless of individual use. In the past, the school encouraged students to compete building-to-building to try and get them to save energy. But that scale didn’t incentivise each student to worry about his or her contribution.

“We’re going to let them go suite to suite, so that roommates can work together when they see that the guys next door are real energy hogs,” says Mr. Lipov.

It’s the people who need to start trimming back who are giving Enertiv the first opportunity to prove its mettle. The team has met plenty of skeptics, but it’s hard to ignore a clear financial result.

Enertiv would love in the long run to move into individual adaption — they’ve installed the system in small apartments for kicks. Businesses have clear incentives to adopt their system, but it’s hard to imagine that shaving a few dollars off of a home electricity bill would be enough to inspire a behavioral shift.

The Market Value of Change

Enertiv just completed the R/GA Techstars Accelerator program, which helped them hone their hardware and their model. They want to go from having 100 of their monitoring units sold to 1000 by the end of the year.

Ultimately, the goal of Enertiv and the other environmentally conscious startups at Urban Future Lab is to make infrastructure both smart and environmentally friendly.

“We can think about renewables and all these type of things that use greener power,” Mr. Lipov said, “but fundamentally, if we want to use power more effectively, conservation is the best way.”

For users of Enertiv, the primary purpose might be to save money, with energy conservation as a secondary result. Whatever the case, these are the incentives that pave the way for Enertiv’s environmental mission, at least for businesses. For individuals, it’ll be difficult to inspire great change where gains are marginal, and habits are harder to break.

When you look up at that dashboard, with its color coding, its real-time charts, and it’s big dollar signs, you start to get a glimpse at what might be possible.

And once you see it, it’s impossible to ignore.

Follow Jack Smith IV on Twitter or via RSS. jsmith@observer.com