In the not so distant past consumers were typically mailed a utility bill that summarized the electricity consumption of their home or business over the last month and the cost associated with it. Utility companies didn’t have a method of providing more specific information about the time or use of electricity.

However, with the installation of smart meters in homes and small businesses across Ontario, time-of-use billing is now possible, allowing consumers to be charged different rates depending on when—daily and seasonally—they use electricity.

Cleantech entrepreneurs have jumped on this new offering, creating interactive apps that allow consumers to track their energy consumption and compare it to that of their friends and family members. Apps connected to social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter will bring together more people for challenges and spur competition. Let the games begin!

In September 2011, United States President Barack Obama issued a call to action to provide a strategy to help Americans reduce their energy consumption and the associated costs. The electricity industry in the United States responded with Green Button, an initiative that provides energy data to consumers in a user-friendly way.

The concept involves customers being able to access information about their energy consumption via a secure download from their energy utility provider. This information, combined with Internet and smartphone applications, allows consumers to increase their understanding of their electricity usage and to make more informed energy decisions.

To go along with Green Button, the US Department of Energy launched an Apps for Energy challenge, offering $100,000 for the app that best helped customers make use of their energy data.

Toronto-based startup Zerofootprint, a MaRS client, won the Popular Choice Award Grand Prize with their app, VELObill, which was also given third prize for the Best Overall Application Award. VELObill helps consumers view their utility usage, compare it to that of their peers and examine ways to save money.

The VELO app showing showing total electricity consumption
The VELO app showing showing total electricity consumption

Another MaRS client, British Columbia’s Ecotagious, has also had great success in creating applications to help consumers better understand and control their energy usage. The company’s interactive website provides tools to empower consumers to change their energy consumption behaviour and engage with friends and family. Ecotagious is currently conducting beta testing with one of Ontario’s largest utilities, the feedback from which will help prepare them for commercialization.

Track your savings with apps

Both companies provide insight into where a consumer’s electricity is going and when they use it the most. Their applications also provide smart and often fun energy-saving tips to help consumers reduce their energy usage. Setting short- and long-term goals to conserve energy and save money, as well as tracking the progress toward reaching those goals, is all easily accomplished with their software. Energy consumers can track their savings on a daily basis, seeing their usage broken down by month, day or even hour.

Are you considering an energy retrofit for your home or installing a solar panel on your roof? Applications in the energy space can help you calculate your energy savings, determine your payback period and even help locate the resources you need.

Gamification of the energy sector: Apps let you compete against friends and family members

When it comes to changing consumer behaviours, introducing competition is a growing trend. The apps created by Ecotagious and Zerofootprint allow consumers to compare their energy usage to that of consumers in similar-size homes or even to neighbours in their area. This feature allows consumers to compete against friends and family members to reduce energy consumption.

The introduction of increased awareness and the gamification of the energy sector is already reducing the demand for electricity. At the MaRS Future of Energy summit that took place on June 8, 2012, Drew Sloan from OPower talked about the social aspects of the smart energy grid and how engaging consumers is imperative. He explained that consumers who received reports about their energy usage, which included the customers of 70 utility companies in four countries (Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States) reduced their overall energy consumption by 1 to 3% compared to consumers who did not receive their energy usage data.

Ontario: No equal access to energy data

Currently, in Ontario there is no equal access to energy data, which means that local distribution centres can access consumer data, but companies providing software to help understand this data, like Zerofootprint and Ecotagious, cannot. However, homeowners do own their energy data and can grant permission for applications to retrieve the information and download it to the app for their use.

Despite the lack of a national or provincial strategy to provide energy data to consumers, Canadian entrepreneurs continue to innovate new software and tools to help consumers increase their energy literacy and understanding of the electricity grid, and to make smart energy decisions that reduce demand and save money.

Increased understanding and changing consumer behaviours are going to change how we think about energy as a society, and I cannot wait to see what our entrepreneurs come up with next to help us adapt to the changing energy sector.

Jennifer Minelli

Jennifer manages the accelerating ventures program at MaRS, supporting high-growth ventures in the cleantech, health and information & communications technology (ICT) sectors.See more…