August 31, 2015 | Tech Nonprofits

WattTime: Enable your smart devices to prioritize energy from clean power sources

This is the sixth post in a weekly series covering each of Fast Forward’s nine tech nonprofits.

Global warming is one of the biggest challenges and threats in the modern world. Worldwide, we emit about 36,000,000,000 tons of carbon each year (about 100 million tons a day). This carbon comes primarily from generating electricity, and most scientists agree that our carbon emissions will lead to some serious harmful effects on the planet and on humans, likely with the world’s poor suffering the most.

Renewable energy offers a path to reducing our carbon footprint, but it comes with its own challenges. One of these challenges is that renewable energy availability doesn’t perfectly match with energy demand. Have you ever seen wind turbines standing still on a windy day? Wind power curtailments, where turbines have to slow or shut off because the electricity they could generate for the grid would have nowhere to go, causes significant loss in our wind power efficiency; the same happens for solar power when the supply of sun-powered electricity is greater than the mid-day demand.

If renewable energy excites you and the idea of wasted renewable energy frustrates you, then WattTime can help. Imagine that you plug in your internet-connected smartphone, or even your electric vehicle or your air conditioning unit, and it charges based on information from the cloud on when more clean energy is available. With WattTime, individuals and corporations can reduce their carbon footprint and reduce curtailment by enabling smart devices to prioritize energy from clean power sources.

We learn more from co-founder and Executive Director Gavin McCormick.

What inspired you to start WattTime?

After college I went to Namibia as a teacher, where climate change was already starting to bring drought and desertification. Here in California the drought seems pretty bad right now, but at the end of the day, we are still a rich country and will be able to cope. But for people like my students, drought could one day mean having no food. Now, you can’t be sure that a drought is caused by climate change, but I think they are related. So my students in Namibia really gave me a human face to climate change.

As a grad student, I continually met people who were frustrated that they could not do anything to help the environment, and at the same time I saw huge waste in the power grid. I also knew that clean power plants were now almost able to compete financially with fossil fuel plants, and calculated that simply capturing that waste could often tip the scales to just stop building fossil fuel power plants. I wanted to make a tool that would help everyday people make a difference to help the environment.

What are the biggest challenges in increasing environmental awareness and reducing carbon emissions?

You know, I think the problem is actually that everyone thinks awareness is the answer. I think people are chock full of information and awareness, and that’s why WattTime doesn’t focus on increasing awareness but instead offers a solution that will make an actual difference. I think most people are already willing to do something about the environment if you put an easy solution in their hands.

Your product could potentially work as a for-profit, why did you decide that a nonprofit was best?

There are very, very few technologies that could save as much carbon emissions as we need to actually stop runaway climate change before it’s too late… I mean like in only 5 years. WattTime has discovered this amazing technology and it’s just possible that it might be enough. But if we try to “own” this breakthrough and keep our competitors out, there’s zero chance of it spreading that far, that fast. It has to be available to everyone. And so we developed this model that if you try to compete with us, we will actually help you do it. That’s something even well-meaning for-profit investors can’t really agree to.

I want it to rain again in Namibia, and we are running out of time to stop climate change. It’s just possible that we can pull it off.

What does the world look like to you in 5 years?

In 5 years, we want making smart devices greener with environmental demand response, whether or not you buy it from us, to be so easy and so popular that you would be crazy to manufacture anything connected to the internet that uses electricity, anywhere in the world, without bothering to add the few lines of code it takes to make it eco-friendly.

If we succeed, it will mean devices used by literally billions of people worldwide will collectively make it possible for their local power grids everywhere to support cleaner energy. Together that would be enough to support the very high levels of renewable power that will be necessary to actually stop climate change in its tracks.