After so much rain over the last few weeks, it was great to see the sun again on Sunday. We spent some time at the Fermentation Festival in the Seaholm District near downtown.
There were also workshops being held throughout the day at the Austin Public Library, which is a world-class facility if you haven’t been. All in all it was a well-attended event with a lively mix of fermented food and drink vendors. The samples were top-notch!
For starters, by most accounts, my spouse and I are kind of extreme when it comes to simplifying. My wife describes the (main) set of circumstances that sparked our sustainability push more eloquently than me, but roughly speaking, here’s the short version.
When we had our first child, it was right after Katrina and with my wife being from New Orleans, it hit home on many fronts. The impacts of climate, people in need, and our kids’ futures all seemed bizarrely exposed. It was around that time, we both decided we had grown tired of hearing, “Don’t worry, someone else will take care of it!”
The problem was that we weren’t meeting a lot of those “other people,” the ones that were deftly operating behind the scenes. She basically led the charge at that point and moved beyond the rhetoric. Sometimes,we collectively decided, it has to be you. And that meant it had to be us.
We ended up in Houston a few years later for work, just in time to catch the arrival of another monumental storm, Hurricane Ike. And boy did that shift things. With Katrina still in the shadows, we were pounded in Downtown Houston and left without power for almost two days. Our daughter had also just been born, so here we were with two babies, no power, and stranded.
So there’s some context. And it’s not just about climate change, or being green. The latter is a byproduct of being acutely aware of our surroundings. We challenged ourselves to question things more —at every turn. Why did this happen?How do we keep it from happening again? I can’t explain why we didn’t change things sooner. We just realized that things in our world, our personal world, had to change. Over the last five years, here’s a few things we’ve done.
The Heirloom Principle
Consumption is the centerpiece of how we think things through. We both come from families that love to collect things, so it’s a constant challenge. Estate sales signs in older neighborhoods are our addiction. What we had to agree on was a simple set of rules.
We decided on “immediate utility.” Just what it sounds like. If we bought something, it had to be hung, worn, toted, or played with in an increasingly short time frame. Use it or lose it. Or in our case, take it back to Goodwill.
I was reminded of the term itself from the founder of Opportunity Green, Karen Solomon. “Buy stuff that’ll last,” she told me after a meeting in Austin.
Audit The Resources You’re Using
Start with assessing your usage. How much water and electricity do you use every month? And fortunately, it’s become much easier to see that information. Utilities, water districts, and municipalities are awash in data. The challenge is getting you and me to act on it. Beyond common sense and choosing fundamental options — Energy Star ratings or tips from your local utility — it’s part education and part discipline.
Living through a drought in Central Texas and summers in Dallas taught us early on that we might not want to be dependent on a lot of watering. Soon after, my wife blew past “quick study” status on native landscaping and voila!, our water consumption plummeted. It wasn’t all because of our lawns, but it was a big piece. That decrease in usage was one of those light-bulb moments. If this provided such an impact, what else could we do?
And don’t let anyone tell you that competition doesn’t have anything to do with it. Competition is word-of-mouth’s favorite cousin. We saw that the first time we went over to a friend’s house and mentioned our water bill (below). I’m not sure they believed us, but the next time we saw them, they mentioned they had no idea they were using so much water.
One other example that opens peoples’ eyes has to do with electricity. My wife took a weekend class a few years back that was focused on solar, mostly residential. A subset of the curriculum addressed “vampire power,” or the standby mode of particular devices. I haven’t compiled hard data from month-to-month, but we saw a pretty substantial spike after we starting using more power strips and aggressively turning everything off. Yes, that means unplugging the microwave, too. I told you we were extreme.
After a few months, it became habitual, and more so as we continued to see what was attainable. Dovetailing off that, we looked at all of our appliances. After seeing how much power a refrigerator eats up, we attacked that first. The key was to take a long-term view, especially since a few of our adjustments would require replacement costs. Wefound a fridge that was super-efficient, without an ice-maker, and with the capability to turn off the freezer as needed. The point isn’t to tell you to go out and buy new appliances. What’s important is putting your usage under a microscope.
How often did we really make those ice-tray popsicles ? Not very often. Why not head down to the local shop and support them instead? That’s what we did. We also got rid of our dryer and used the undervalued, often maligned, clothesline. Besides huge energy savings, there’s a certain vintage, if not ritualistic quality hanging out clothes provides. No room for a clothesline you say? Target has small drying stands for less than $15. Get a few.
Keeping the outdoor theme intact, we also bought a Sun Oven. That was an easy transition, considering we had recently yanked out our old range, which of course, had an oven. That left us with no oven inside, as we opted for an induction cook-top. Soon we had become “trial-and error” Sun Oven cookers. And it wasn’t that hard. We quickly learned which veggies and grains were best, and soon were wedging all sorts of other things inside the hard foiled edges of our new friend.
There was certain type of win we felt everyone time we got back to the house and pulled something out of the yard that was ready-to-eat, and didn’t require the grid. Now granted,our Austin house is about 1100 sq. ft, but in cooler months, all the things I mentioned helped us consistently hover around $20 for a full month’s power.
Lifestyle Choices Lead To Lowing Hanging Fruit
There’s also some less tangible, lifestyle choices we’ve made. The biggest ones have been buying local and moving to the second-hand market. It’s amazing, and a bit horrifying, when you try to find stuff made in the States, much less regionally. Buying second-hand became not only a quest for quality, but an economic vote for companies that had some backyard skin in the game. And if you have kids, well, that’s the multiplier.
It was absurd to buy new swim shirts for any kid under the height markings on our giraffe’s shoulder. They outgrow those things too fast. Besides, our local Goodwill creates jobs in the community — a win for everyone. It was also interesting to see how our thrifting tendencies drove our mindset in other areas.
By paying attention to what lasted,we developed an innate sense of categorization. We’ve become adept at classifying things that should always be found in “gently used” environments. No to mention, we got smarter, we saved money, and we gave back. Those are things everybody can relate to. So create your own playbook. And grow from it.
Bringing Big Data down to earth isn’t just a figure of speech for Geostellar, a Washington, D.C.-based startup using social media to drive solar adoption. A big part of the $16 million it’s raised is being spent on crunching data and getting it into the hands of homeowners who want to generate their own clean energy.
“We’re all about the home owner,” CEO David Levine said in an interview at SXSW. “The energy industry hasn’t done them any favors. What people need is an advocate, something that works for them.” What works is a transparent ROI, some marketplace effects and a sliver of competition, which Geostellar describes as the “Glory” piece in its marketing campaign. For the past three years, Levine’s team has been building out its 3-D models, based on data that’s gathered by the same planes that Google, Apple and Microsoft use to snap pictures of the earth.
By combining its satellite imagery with the latest utility and energy rates, Geostellar uses your ZIP code to render three different snapshots of your home’s energy potential. Playing to different motivations, it displays the results under the categories, “Money,” ”Power” and “Glory,” which show electricity savings, electricity output and CO2 emissions, respectively.
Guessing that most of us aren’t experts in the last two — kilowatt-hours and carbon-dioxide tonnage — it breaks those benefits into something more digestible, like how many flights or loads of laundry you avoided. That’s where the social media part kicks in. They’re betting peer pressure will drive much of the adoption as neighbors try to one-up each other. Recent developments from companies like Opower — which uses social media to encourage energy efficiency in the home and works with with more than 70 utilities — show the approach is catching on. By liberating customer data around energy usage, behaviors and costs are amplified. In Geostellar’s case, current users can share their information within the application or externally on Facebook and Twitter.
Driving down costs
When homeowners are interested enough to get bids, it collects estimates from a large pool of installers and provides a detailed comparison of the proposals. According to Levine, part of the difficulty in assessing a homeowner’s options is the lack of standardized vendor processes and the variance around Solar Renewable Energy Credits.
Some vendors, for example, could have a pricing advantage because its models are based on a different set of assumptions than its competitor: The lower-priced proposal might assume utility rates would rise an average of 7 percent over the 25-year life of the panel, while the other vendor, with worse savings, only assumed a 4 percent rate increase.
By functioning as the broker, Geostellar meshes all the rates and best practices from vendors and delivers an “apple-to-apples” comparison, as Levine describes it.
That helps both parties. Confusion is removed from the bidding process and installers can focus on scaling installation, instead of spending on soft costs associated with things like marketing and customer churn.
In a March research brief, financial services firm Raymond James Financial cited data from the Rocky Mountain Institute that estimated soft costs represent more than 60 percent of total U.S. system costs, and are roughly four times higher than in Germany, despite higher labor prices. That’s a key metric because Geostellar charges installers a transaction fee, one it says is less than a solar installer’s cost to acquire a customer.
“With solar, now that the technology is proven, the industry’s biggest challenge is driving down costs,” Raj Prabhu, managing partner at Mercom Capital Group in Austin, Texas, said in a recent Bloomberg article. “The new money is going downstream to help build markets. The industry is now mainstream.”
Buzzing around the SXSWECO conference, you’ll hear all sorts of personal stories about how people are lessening their impact on the planet. Whether or not it signals a larger shift in behavior is still debatable. Generally, it takes an incremental approach, one that can undoubtedly be augmented by technology.
One company, Raleigh-based app maker JouleBug, is betting it can move the needle with a data-driven approach to gaming.
“We’re really an award program for sustainability actions,” said Founder Grant Williard. “It’s educational, but it also touches on our competitive spirit.”
JouleBug takes a mobile-first strategy, as its gaming mechanics are geared around simple tasks that you track and submit as they’re completed. As expected, the app has a strong social media element too, allowing you to invite people through Twitter or Facebook as well as the ability to share what you’ve completed.
While data is the juice that keep things flowing, JouleBug’s strongest piece is the integration it provides with your utility or gas company. If you’re provider is set up, you can easily suck in your utility bill and get a snapshot of your usage. Williard says they’ll soon be able to give you an archive as far back as a year, and include gas and water bills. The visualizations that accompany your data is one of the things that Williard says sets them apart. But it’s not just pretty graphs, you’ll see the badges you’ve earned along with recommendations based on past usage.
But even with all that, getting people to use something daily is tall order. Look at Foursquare, they’re years into the model and it’s still unclear whether gaming can carry it. But seeing Foursquare cut a deal with OpenTable gives you a sense of how they and JouleBug might evolve. Both companies have aspirations beyond the consumer, and it starts with integrations and alliances.
“We’re focusing our business development efforts first and foremost where the value is the highest and where the biggest energy and cost savings can take place,” explained Williard.
And they’ve made some progress, recently announcing a deal with the City of Raleigh. That partnership allowed Raleigh to tailor the platform to include everything from credits for taking green-oriented city tours to waste diversion and composting. The city says it’s been a real catalyst for raising awareness around sustainability, and even used the momentum to implement a Green Restaurant certification program.
The Raleigh partnership gives JouleBug some momentum as its newest offering, JouleBug Communities, becomes widely available by the end of the year. That package will target municipalities, companies and universities and will help entire cities track and understand the effectiveness of their sustainability strategies. I asked Williard about implementation and pressed him again on adoption, this time in the context of the other Raleighs of the world. He said other municipalities are bringing their leadership onboard first. As citizens and peers see usage from core users, the competition heats up.
The other area where JouleBug shines is around its technology stack and capabilities. For one, Williard brings some enterprise solidity to the company, having sold his previous endeavor to Adobe. That know-how will also play an important role when pulling together the type of integrations currently in the queue.
Beyond straight-forward application programming interfaces (APIs), there’s also the Energy Department’s Green Button standard. The goal of that program is to standardize the way energy data is represented and delivered. And with some of the largest U.S. utilities already participating, it’s that type of reach that’s in front of JouleBug. Williard estimates the coverage map is close to 25 million people.
Numbers aside, there’s plenty of room for a few players in this space. The data and gaming combination isn’t going away, it’s more about who can innovate on top of those disciplines. And at some point, there will be plenty of companies ready to buy a head start over the competition. JouleBug appears to be in an interesting position.
You can meet the JouleBug team in booth #8 at this year’s SXSW Eco (www.sxsweco.com) conference and tradeshow taking place in Austin, Texas October 3-5, 2012.