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Windshed: Community data sharing to save renewable energy [UPDATED 8 Feb 2015]

Wind and solar power are now so cheap in many regions that sometimes what’s holding renewables back isn’t cost: it’s communication. We propose encouraging the key players—the community, utility, and renewable power plant—to work with each other to make the best use out of the renewable power sources we already have. Today, utilities force wind and solar plants to waste up to 16% of their output, because renewable electricity production changes unpredictably whenever the weather does. If the community could join the conversation whenever this waste occurred, then any business or homeowner could help soak up the surplus renewable energy in their local “windshed,” offsetting the use of fossil fuel power.

Photo of Anna Schneider
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[UPDATED 1/29/2015] Windshed is a software-powered community engagement program that gives people, businesses, and institutions the opportunity to keep renewable energy on their local grid. It tackles the twin problems of renewables integration—making sure that the renewable energy that gets generated gets used—and energy information access—making sure that people can make energy choices based on information that's accurate, transparent, and up-to-date. Windshed addresses these problems by providing real-time energy data from utilities and wind farms to energy end-users in actionable forms like  alerts and automation.

The Problem: Renewables Curtailment

Because the wind and sun fluctuate over time, it can be difficult for a utility to balance the electricity needs of a community throughout the day with when renewable energy happens to be available. The more windmills they allow in a single area, the greater the risk of costly grid imbalances if no one uses power when there is a gust of wind. In many areas, this means utilities are ordering renewable power plants to produce less energy than they could, a process called “curtailment.”

When this isn’t enough, some concerned utilities are now trying to oppose the installation of further renewable energy—like in Hawaii for solar, and Nicaragua for wind. But this anti-green attitude rightly makes some communities very mad. For instance, the city of Boulder, Colorado is trying to split from its local utility over both environmental and cost issues.

The Idea: Incentivize Communication

Instead of fighting utilities over timing, an organized community could easily recruit them into allies by solving their underlying communications problem. In order to reduce output at a power plant, a utility (or other power grid operator) has to either call them or send them some signal online.

We propose that communities should encourage their utilities to make that same signal to the local renewable plant available as public knowledge. If, say, a city were to require the local utility to post it on their website whenever a signal went out to waste power, then people would know what was happening and have the chance to act. By getting the choice to use energy at the right times, the community can keep the renewable power plants on the grid.

The Outcome: Easy Renewable Power

Armed with information from the utility, it will be easy for institutions and individuals to make good use of the excess renewable energy. At these times (when local renewable power is “marginal”), plugging anything into a wall outlet draws energy from the otherwise-curtailed wind farm. By using power then, anyone could easily help their neighborhood wind farm stop wasting this valuable surplus energy. In many cases—from electric vehicle charging in home garages, to walk-in freezers in grocery stores, to large water heaters in schools—using power when it comes from excess renewables will directly offset the use of power when it would have come from dirty sources like fossil fuels. When the community and the utility work together, the wind farm wins, and therefore so does everyone else.

Impact evaluation [updated 2/1/2015]

Two impact evaluation metrics for Windshed could be the number of megawatt-hours of renewable electricity that make it onto the grid that otherwise would have been curtailed and wasted, and the additional revenue earned by the renewables plants from selling that power onto the grid. Both of these metrics are measurable if program implementers and the utility cooperate to estimate what curtailment would have taken place without Windshed.

Another set of metrics involves tracking how much grid-connected renewable energy is used by each program participant homeowner or business. This is can be calculated by comparing program participants' energy metering timeseries data (at hourly resolution or better, e.g., from smart meters and Green Button) to the utility's renewable energy supply timeseries data. It would be great if this metric were calculated frequently and communicated back to community members so they can track their progress!

Finally, one last set of impact evaluation metrics involves surveys and other community data collection to determine overall program participant satisfaction, improved opinion of renewable energy, improved opinion of the local utility, improved sense of empowerment to make positive energy choices, etc. These data would help improve the program for the next iteration.

Progress so far [updated 2/8/2015]

User research: We conducted an online poll of 370 randomly selected Americans in 46 states. We found that 75%-95% of people said they would be willing to use a smart device (like a smart thermostat) that prioritizes curtailed renewable energy! (The range is because we tried several different ways of asking the question.) One thing we noticed was the level of anger at utilities—when we asked respondents if they had anything else they wanted to mention, one of the most common responses was to that they did not trust their utility to control their thermostat. Together, we think that these results suggest that a large fraction of users would be willing to participate in a Windshed program where they have the chance to make their own positive energy choices.

Industry feedback: We've run this idea by energy systems researchers at UC Berkeley. They told us that utilities have some incentive to cooperate with this plan because an alternative way to get wind power to where it can be used, i.e., upgrading high-voltage transmission lines, can cost $2-3 million per mile! They also told us about a subfield of behavioral economics research that shows that "green" can sometimes be a stronger motivator than money. This means that community-scale experiments could be relatively cheap to run because people may be more willing to participate if they don't get paid.

Prototypes: Getting our hands on actual wind farm data requires insider connections that we don't have yet (we'd love help from the OpenIDEO community with this!). Instead, we're prototyping the real-time data back-end with a related data source: the carbon emissions caused by using electricity at a particular time and place. Here's what we have so far:
  • A complete software system for collecting, analyzing, and publishing "marginal" carbon emissions data from energy industry data sources. We've been iterating on improving data quality and operations to increase uptime, accuracy, and reliability.
  • Several prototypes of front-ends to get data in front of users, including @WattTimeCA, a Twitter feed of the fraction of California's energy that's coming from renewable sources every hour. We've gotten feedback that users quickly become desentisized to user intefaces that update once a day or more frequently. So, a UX that only communicates the most important times to act would be more effective.
  • An automated back-end that optimizes electric vehicle charging based on the availability of clean energy on the grid. Our software controls Internet of Things devices like smart charging stations to turn them on and off at the cleanest and dirtiest times. A system like this could be part of the user flow for Eric's EV in our UX map.

History [updated 2/8/2015]

Windshed is a project of WattTime, a nonprofit based in Berkeley, CA. Team leads Gavin and Anna, plus a bunch of amazing volunteers, started thinking about Windshed in late 2013 through the Business for Social Responsibility Hackathon (winner) and the Big Ideas@Berkeley competition (semi-finalist). In 2014, Gavin and Anna were named Echoing Green Climate Fellows, and WattTime joined the Foundry@CITRIS incubator at UC Berkeley. These days, we're spending our time on two main goals: (1) developing software that enables people and smart devices to use electricity when it comes from clean sources like renewables; and (2) seeking community, utility, corporate, and other partners to help us get our solutions tested in the field!

What community does this idea benefit and who are the main players?

The “windshed” idea has the most benefit for areas that meet three conditions: a large number of renewable power installations, with the potential for more; a reactionary utility that’s struggling to cope with the clean energy economy; and a community that’s heavily invested (emotionally and/or financially) in local renewable energy. Such is the situation in many parts of Hawaii, where community-supported solar power often goes to waste, or in many parts of Vermont and Washington State, where community-supported wind power often goes to waste. As to the players: · It benefits the wind farm, because it gives them more business and helps them compete with fossil fuels. · It benefits any homeowner, institution, and municipality that wants to support renewable energy or meet sustainability targets. · It benefits the utility, because it helps them balance the power grid and cut costs. · And by avoiding costlier energy sources, it would lower the price of electricity in the area, benefitting everyone, especially low-income people and public institutions with tight budgets.

How does your idea specifically help your community rapidly transition to renewables?

Every time anyone in the community used extra electricity when there is a local renewables surplus, that energy would come from clean power. Of course the most direct benefit would be if individuals and institutions could use power then and not at other times. In that case, they’d be directly shifting from fossil fuels to renewable energy right away. And that speed is important! Most of the time, the only way to use more renewable energy is to build more renewable plants—a slow and expensive process. But excess renewable power can be available instantly. In the long run, any surplus renewable power that gets soaked up helps renewable power plants compete with traditional fossil fuel plants by earning more revenue. Moreover, it not only helps the utilities balance the power grid, it helps them do it in a way that makes renewables and communities the solution, not a “problem” for them to try to fight. Essentially, a community that made these data public would be letting anyone who wanted to “vote” for wind. By literally taking control of where their energy comes from, it would also help people rethink their own role in energy and climate.

What early, lightweight experiment can you try out in your own community to find out if the idea will meet your expectations?

· Ask the operator of your local wind farm how often they are asked to waste power. Lots of curtailment = lots of potential savings. · Call the back office at your local utility and ask if they would be willing to share these data with the community. A utility that’s open to creative solutions will be more collaborative. Ask other community members if they support the idea, and tell the utility how many community members are on your side. · Gather a team to attend a city council meeting and demonstrate your support for this idea to your representatives. If the utility is resistant, pressure from lawmakers or the community at large can convince the utility to cooperate. · Ask the facility manager at a local business, school, or other public building about how they use their electricity. Appliances that are flexible about when they get used—like smart thermostats, electric water heaters, walk-in fridges at restaurants, or electric cars—are the easiest to shift to cleaner times. · Survey your friends and community members to ask if they would sign up for an app that alerts them when excess renewable energy is available from the grid. If you are a coder (or know one), write an prototype app using sample data. Some data is already available at

What skills, input or guidance are you keen to connect with from the OpenIDEO community to help you build out or refine your idea further?

· Does anyone live in a community where this information already is public who can talk about their experience? · Does anyone work with a community-owned wind farm (like Kingdom Community Wind in Vermont) which might be willing to share its own information without a utility? · Does anyone at a utility have access to these data (about “curtailment”)? · Does anyone have experience working with local governments to advance innovative clean energy policies?

Please indicate which type of energy is most relevant to this post:

  • A combination of various types of renewable energy

This idea emerged from:

  • A Group Brainstorm


Join the conversation:

Photo of Andreas Karelas

Great idea Anna! I wonder how we might be able to use this tool with the communities we work with. Any suggestions? Check out our campaign page and let me know at


Photo of Anna Schneider

Thanks Andreas! Solar Seed Fund is a great idea--and close to home for me, since I live 2 blocks from your project at Shawl-Anderson in Berkeley :).

Whether Windshed applies to RE-volv's projects depends on how you set up your interconnection, PPA, etc. I looked around the RE-volv website and I can't find those details... Has PG&E, CAISO, or another grid operator ever asked your projects to curtail the generation that's fed into the grid? If not, then congratulations--your communities are already consuming the energy from these solar projects!

Photo of Andreas Karelas

Hi Anna, that's so great you're near Shawl-Anderson! I see, so your work is for larger projects that have big fluctuations in power output. You're right, our systems are all behind the meter and we have not run into the curtailment issue. Best of luck!

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