SXSW Eco, the second annual green offshoot of the perennial Austin, Texas conference, kicks off this week with a flurry of announcements promising to make going green a socially connected, mobile-delivered lifestyle choice, rather than a chore. Think of software developers as struggling bands, successful entrepreneurs as the rock stars, and VCs and corporate investment managers as the record industry moguls, and you’ve got a rough approximation.
To be sure, SXSW Eco is a smaller affair than its music industry equivalent in March, and carries a softer, more socially focused emphasis, with plenty of authors, designers, sustainability free-thinkers and the like. But it’s also drawing a fair number of the more socially minded attempts to connect consumers to their energy use, whether it’s via iPhone, OnStar or your neighborhood parking meter.
Let’s take iPhones first, or smartphones in general. Pretty much every utility-to-home energy technology vendor out there has a demo app for smartphones, but how many customers use them? So far, most are confined to pilot projects and industry-trade-show floor displays, though we’ve seen some mobile-enabled smart thermostat programs in Texas get some traction.
In the meantime, personal carbon calculators, utility bill estimators and other such apps are out there in multitudes, but few claim to do more than cross-reference the guesses that customers have on their air conditioning use, miles driven to work and other such factors.
Then, of course, you’ve got your social media plays at the energy consuming herd, with smart grid startups like Opower teaming up with Facebook and the National Resources Defense Council, or apps emerging from the energy hackathons taking place across the country that ask users to connect to Twitter and LinkedIn to spread the green message -- and the app’s customer base, of course.
Enter JouleBug, a cute green mobile app that’s backed up by some big data expertise. Company co-founder and president Grant Williard comes from Adobe and I-Cubed/Navisware, co-founder James Wicker was Adobe’s youngest lead computer scientist, and board member Jim Baum led Neteeza through its $1.7 billion acquisition by IBM.
The Raleigh, N.C.-based startup mines data from the EPA, Department of Energy, Berkeley Labs and other such sources, as well as collecting data about users: where they live, what the gas and power costs are, what the weather’s like, and other factors that guide which actions will have the most impact.
That makes JouleBug’s tips on how much money a user can save by, say, biking to work, buying a used versus a new sofa, or changing out incandescent light bulbs for CFLs, a bit more accurate than the standard fare, Williard told me in an interview last week.
The startup is also trying out some new paths to market, including city services. Last month, JouleBug and the Raleigh city council launched a mobile app designed specifically for the city’s needs, Williard said. Residents can compete on Facebook and Twitter (of course) on such tasks as recycling and replacing light bulbs, as with many other comparable services.
But they can also earn kudos for taking the city’s sustainability walking tour, volunteering for community service, riding the bus (the so-called “Raleigh Rocket”) or using one of the city’s Big Belly solar recycling stations, to name a few examples.
This week, JouleBug rolled out a 2.0 version of the software, along with a “communities subscription program” meant to do for other cities what it’s doing for Raleigh. The hope is to bring lots smartphone-carrying residents (along with those that use the web page) into a city-run social network, essentially, and build on that relationship to better conduct its business.
Cities aren’t the only target. JouleBug board member Ken Schwenke founded and led the Off-Campus Dining Network, a college meal-card program, and sold it to international campus dining giant Sodexo in 2006. Williard said that the company is talking to universities about platforms to link students to the rich variety of sustainability drives at college, though it hasn’t announced any partnerships yet.
Then, of course, there’s the utility angle. JouleBug’s app makes it easy for users to connect with their existing utility online account, if they have one, and download power, water and gas billing data that helps “close the feedback loop” between promising and delivering savings, Williard said. JouleBug could easily deliver messages to its users asking them to turn off their unneeded power use during utility peak price events, or warnings to close the south-facing window shades the morning of a hot day to cut down on air conditioning bills later that afternoon, to name a few examples -- though, once again, it hasn’t launched any such projects yet.
So we’ve got the app to get us to bike to work instead of drive. But for those of us who can’t avoid the murderous commute, how about an app to make parking a bit easier?
That’s the idea behind Streetline, the Foster City, Calif.-based startup with the “Parker” app to tell people where to find open parking spaces, via city-installed sensor networks. Streetline, led by SAP alum and SXSW Eco panelist Zia Yusuf, was one of the winners of IBM’s Smartcamp competition last year, and has since launched projects in such cities as Knoxville, Tenn. and Reno, Nev.
In April, it set up a $25 million line of credit with Citi to finance projects for cities, which can use the data collected by the low-power sensor network to better plan their transportation decisions. For those of us who don’t live in sensored cities, Streetline’s app offers other useful tidbits, such as meter timers and the ability to “tag” your car’s location in your smartphone and use it to find your way back to whatever alley or dark garage corner you left it in.
Parking the car gets even more complicated when you’ve got an electric vehicle that needs to charge up. Austin’s working on that too via its Pecan Street Project, a smart grid and green technology testbed with partners like Sony, Intel, SunEdison, Whirlpool, Best Buy, Toshiba’s Landis+Gyr and General Motors.
In July, GM launched its Chevy Volt plug-in charging project in Austin’s Mueller neighborhood, with the goal of getting more than 100 Volts into the hands of residents there, via a special offer of double the usual $7,500 rebate for purchasers of plug-in hybrids.
From there, GM planned to test the smart grid apps it’s developed for its OnStar navigation system to manage plug-in charging en masse, including the ability to slow or halt charging to stabilize the grid. While GM has remained mum on the details of its project, execs from the automaking giant are set to announce some next phases of its project this week at SXSQ Eco. Stay tuned for more details.