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!