For decades, air travel was kind of a pain in the butt. When we first started flying commercially in the 1940s, it was hardly a navigable arena for most people. That started to change in 1957 when American Airlines began working on the first automated reservation tool. By the time it was finished in 1964, the so-called Semi-automated Business Research Environment (SABRE) could process more than 7,000 bookings per hour via two IBM mainframes connected to thousands of terminals. For the first time, a reservation system could remember your passenger information, too.
The skies quickly became more accessible to average folks, who could now book a flight in a few minutes with the help of a travel agent. The airlines were deregulated in the 80s; internet access exploded in the early 90s and in 1996 the successors of SABRE evolved into the first online travel agency- Travelocity. Expedia, Priceline, and others soon followed.
It took a long time and a lot of backend maneuvering, but nowadays you can book a ticket to almost anywhere from almost anywhere, without any assistance, in just a few clicks. Frankly, it’s pretty astounding when you think about it.
Optiwatt wants to make going green similarly seamless.
Getting your car to talk to your utility
Optiwatt was one of the first Tesla vehicle applications, designed to help EV adopters save money by charging their automobiles during off-peak hours.
“You’d just click one button and then your car would always charge at the cheapest blocks rather than the most expensive,” explains Casey Donahue, the company’s founder, who now envisions Optiwatt playing a larger role in home energy management via tapping into smart thermostats.
“From there, we started to integrate with energy markets because usually what the user needed to do to save money almost always aligned with what the utility wanted them to do anyway.”
Optiwatt’s free app incentivizes you to consume energy at times more convenient for your utility, resulting in lower bills and a happier grid. As EV adoption grows, this sort of load management will be essential to avoid grid infrastructure issues- we can’t all be charging at the same time every night.
“At the end of the day the utility operator, the grid operators, are the ones who understand the budget, the load, and the energy needs of their area and we need to be able to communicate what each device is doing and what the user preference is with their grid needs,” Donahue says. “Those are the two endpoints we’re matching up.”
It turns out energy and financial efficiency have Venn diagrams that intersect quite nicely.
“I don’t know if this is luck, but we really developed consumer-first and what’s happened in the three years since then is these utilities have adopted our way of doing things,” admits Donahue. “It’s not because we had some Magic 8 Ball.”
Instead, it took a lot of behind-the-scenes collaboration with utilities to allow smart devices to seamlessly connect. Optiwatt’s goal is to keep things as user-friendly as possible. It’s not up to you, the consumer, to worry about integration or optimization; just connect the devices you intend to save money by using or want to earn incentives on. The rest is Optiwatt’s problem.
“There are 3,000 utilities in the United States and they all have very different structures. They all have very different incentives and they all have very different user bases, as much as a one-size-fits-all would be great,” Donahue opines. “The truth is, Optiwatt has to individually- and anyone working in the utility space has to individually- cater certain parts of our product to fit that specific utility’s needs.”
From the golden shores of
Donahue has a demeanor and cadence that make him easy to converse with. I don’t know how to best describe when somebody makes purposeful eye contact and actually seems like they’re listening to you on a virtual call, but his friendly affectation came off as distinctly Canadian.
As a native Michigander, I consider myself a close relative and a pal to our neighbors up North. I know ’em when I see ’em. I asked Casey where in Canada he’s from- but it turns out he’s from Santa Barbara, California.
“That’s so funny. I have been working more and more with our new head of product enterprise and his name’s Todd, and he’s from Canada,” laughs Donahue. “So maybe it’s wearing off on me.”
Optiwatt is headquartered in San Francisco; this marks the first time I’ve ever been wrong about a Canadian accent. I’ll make sure to write about it if it happens again.
Donahue is unfazed. He wants to talk about the process of getting people to want to use an app like his. He calls it the electrification journey, which kinda sounds like the title of a Grateful Dead album.
“You got to show how to buy the product and what to buy and how much it costs,” he says, for starters.
“Then once they have the product, you really have to work with what’s called a DER (distributed energy resource) like a car, a thermostat, or a battery, and make sure that is communicating properly with the broader grid.”
Next step- load management. “How do we make participation and demand response participation in load flexibility very approachable, simple, and just easy for customers to understand?” Donahue asks.
“From here, we really want to grow into that whole electrification journey,” he continues. “How do we get more devices in the home? How do we teach people what new devices could be earning new incentives or new rebates?”
Sounds like a lot of stuff to figure out. Other companies are trying.
The competition and the future
Home Connect and ev.energy offer apps comparable to Optiwatt. The former, in Donahue’s eyes, is more focused on sending push notifications and rewarding behavior.
“So we’re saying- alright, it’s not all just about rewards and gamification,” he explains. “We really want to just automate the thing to get back to that one button click where you don’t have to think about it, rather than running around your house and turning off lights.”
“We are trying to somewhat figure out the one-size-fits-all for everyone in the United States,” Optiwatt’s founder continues. “Which means how do we plug people into either market-regulated utilities or deregulated energy providers?”
“Our vision here is a user can click ‘I want to go green’ or ‘I want to save money’ anywhere in the United States.”
– Casey Donahue, CEO of Optiwatt
The other similar app store offering, ev.energy, is closer to Optiwatt. Donahue argues they’re focused on everything an electric vehicle can connect to, while his own company is more interested in anything that can integrate with your home.
“For example, you get a thermostat and you want to connect that to your home and start saving money or earning money on that. That’s where we would play and they don’t currently play,” he remarks.
“Our vision here is to do that across the whole home- anything you would want to do with your home in terms of going greener, saving money, or helping our grid get more stable.”
First electric vehicles, then home thermostats. Next for Optiwatt? Getting your home solar and storage setup to talk to other devices. Then maybe some water or pool heater action. Could Optiwatt seamlessly optimize your refrigerator? Your blender? Your light bulbs? Theoretically, sure.
“The limit is gonna be on what actually has load,” chuckles Donahue. “But at a certain point, there are diminishing returns because there’s [not much] energy consumed by those devices. We can’t stop your vacuuming, probably, when you’re vacuuming. You need to be vacuuming.”