From Software to Energy Efficiency

My Journey from Microsoft to the Clean Tech Industry
Aaron Goldfeder, CEO EnergySavvy


In May 2008, I left my corporate software job in search of my next challenge. I had spent 10 years developing software in various product roles mostly at Microsoft.

When I left, I had heard of the hyped up cleantech space and said to myself, “I don’t know anything about it, but if there’s a way to apply software skills to societal goals in a way that can be valuable, count me in.” Then I learned about energy efficiency.

Software Opportunities in Energy Efficiency

Energy Efficiency Software Challenges Abound

After co-founding an energy efficiency software company, EnergySavvy, in 2008, I’ve been surrounded by interesting software challenges for the last 2 years. This space has barely had a Web 1.0 (let alone a Web 2.0) and is entering a great modernization phase.

My hope is that this will inspire at least one other software person to think about applying their software skills (h@cker Skillz?) to energy efficiency. So here’s a round up of interesting software challenges. To keep it simple, we’re going to focus in on three areas of high activity: energy monitoring and analytics, energy data and building analysis.

Energy Monitoring and Analytics

Lots of companies are focused on energy monitoring from real-time smart meter and automation companies like Silver Spring Networks to monthly reporting like OPOWER which compares usage to one’s neighbors. The heart of the idea is if you give more awareness on one’s energy use, you can trigger action.

The challenge is what do you do with energy usage data beside just graph it? Clearly, we as a software community can do better. What about:

  • Doing social comparisons aside from just one’s neighbors? How about usage of homes of similar specs such as age and square footage? How about relative to one’s friends or family? In that case you have to normalize for energy prices, energy intensity (energy use per square foot) and wire it up to some kind of social network.
  • How about analyzing usage data in aggregate to give users specific goals based on observed achievable savings based on some peer group?
  • And what of user interface? Few homeowners are equipped to deal with smart meters, and homeowners often express frustration with the current smart meter tools.
  • Most of these monitoring devices completely skip natural gas (let alone oil) usage, so that seems relatively greenfield albeit hard.

If you’re a network protocol hacker, you should check out ZigBee, which is often the protocol of choice for energy monitoring objects in the house. Also, check out OpenEnergyMonitor.

Residential Energy Data

One of the issues of doing residential energy efficiency at scale is identifying where the savings lie. There are tons of data sources out there to map together to help with this:

  • Take a look at the Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) website. If you’re a data hacker and interested in cleantech, it’s a feast for sore eyes. Tons of data. What if we mashed the EIA data together with real estate data or GIS data, especially with thermographic mapping?
  • Another area is making basic savings predictions based on energy intensity – the measure of energy use per square foot of a home. With basic bill data, square footage and age of home data from the MLS, you could probably get something really interesting going.
  • Still another area is statistical analysis.  Utilities have huge energy efficiency targets to reach (see here).  One of the key challenges is figuring out what is cost effective and what’s not. For example, if they subsidize a CFL bulb, they need to measure kilowatt-hours saved, how much is significant to the program vs. what would have happened anyway via regular market adoption, what’s the actual savings per dollar, etc. This gets complicated quickly and goes bezerko when carbon legislation kicks in.

Building Analysis and Interoperability

One of the hassles of the industry is predicting the energy use of a home based on an in-home energy audit.  There are a ton of tools for this of varying accuracy and complexity. If you’re interested at all in this space you need to know about the HOME STAR Bill. HOME STAR will offer a $3,000 tax credit if a home is made 20 percent more efficient.  So, the question is, regarding 20 percent, who says and with what tool?

A few challenges and opportunities:

  • Obviously, there can be algorithmic improvements here – you’ll need to know building science, which fortunately isn’t rocket science. The main introductory textbook for the field is Residential Energy.
  • There are big workflow and modeling issues with home energy audits. Recurve is a software company working on this, and I’m sure they are hiring.
  • Interoperability is a huge issue here. There are literally hundreds or thousands of different energy programs that industry participants need to work across. Of note is financing, which is growing quickly in this space in both secured form (see PaceNow.org) and unsecured. The financing systems (themselves nascent and a software opportunity) and the audit sources need to communicate, so we need interop. Some folks have begun working on this, but there’s a long way to go.

Wrapping Up and a Shameless plug

Hopefully this gives you a sense of some of the cool challenges at the intersection of energy efficiency and software.  And this is just a small sampling of some of the opportunities.

Our own company, EnergySavvy, is ramping up quickly, and we’re hiring.  I didn’t delve much into what we do, but suffice it to say, we have big technical challenges ahead.  Currently, we use Python, Django, Postgres, PostGIS to weave together energy modeling algorithms, energy data, rebate info, utility and municipality service area mapping and workflow. And that’s just the beginning – we have big plans ahead. Think of what you see at EnergySavvy.com as merely a prototype from a technical perspective.

We also started a LinkedIn group for developers working in energy efficiency, or developers who want to make the transition into cleantech but aren’t sure where to start.

  • http://www.energycircle.com/ Tom Harrison

    Awesome post.

    I joined Energy Circle last year in a similar moment of realization after several decades in software, when I realized that Clean Tech was where I needed to apply my technical skills — somehow consumer electronics e-commerce wasn’t satisfying my need to do something good for the world :-)

    We’re keenly watching your excellent company and others in our space develop — I feel just like I did when I started in the software biz in my 20′s — excited to be part of something … huge!

    I cannot agree more strongly with the need for interoperability and openness in all the data that is getting collected. It’s pretty clear that the standards for our space will arise from companies like ours, hopefully with the help of utilities, larger companies and the government.

    But we’re the ones that are tasked with gluing Part A to Piece B today. So let’s keep the dialog and APIs open!

    BTW — I have used PostgreSQL for the last 10 years or so and only recently was forced to deal with MySQL. PostgreSQL is better. Sigh.

    Regards,

    Tom Harrison
    CTO
    EnergyCircle.com

  • http://power4consulting.com Jimmy Hovey

    Hey Aaron,

    We have been dealing with our own “software challenge” and maybe there is another angle for you to look at.

    I provide lead generation and a sales system for contractors or sales professionals to perform energy audits (we call them Energy Safety Needs Analysis). I created the system by actually developing the process for my own family business, Hovey Electric, Inc. in Midland MI to increase sales in the drooping economy.

    In our analysis, we act as consultants rather than the typical contractors who specify something and then tell you how much to install it. Our approach is fact based, business decision oriented. We only suggest improvements that make business sense based on energy savings, incentives and tax deductions.

    In order to make the suggestions, we have to analyze the facilities and then create reports to create overviews of the data. We have manipulated spreadsheets, used parts and pieces of manufacturers spreadsheets to get the job done, but there is nothing out there to tie everything together to provide a streamlined process. That is where software would be very handy and maybe that could be added to your list.

    I also just want to say your site is very cool. Is it geared mostly to residential or are you including commercial as well? We see a HUGE opportunity with the commercial market and have been selling retrofit jobs within our stagnant economy with little to no competition. I really liked how your site automatically identified incentives available in my area. Very cool!

    Jimmy Hovey
    President/CEO
    POWER4consulting.com

  • http://www.motumb2b.com Stephanie Inglis

    There is a huge challenge accurately predicting–and then measuring in real life–the ROI of energy efficiency improvements. We’ve made huge strides in developing better software for this app that is faster and easier for the energy auditor to use and provides better results. Still a long way to go, and a lot of great brains are applying themselves to the solution building.

    How about this for a challenge? Transfer that kind of software to mobile so the auditors can plug in their metrics right in the field and give homeowners a picture of their specific situation immediately. Now that would be cool!

  • Brian Handly

    This is a great article. As we move further into this decade, we should see the intersection of software, cool, and green grow larger and offer more opportunies for sharp minds