On September 23, 2019, at exactly 4:55 p.m., I ran around my house frantically switching off anything that uses electrical power. First I tackled the obvious things — I turned off as many lights as I could, set my Nest thermostat to a balmy 75 degrees Fahrenheit, and made sure my dishwasher and dryer weren’t running.
I then turned to the less obvious items — pulling the plug on nonessential routers, home automation hubs, and the other little, glowing energy vampires that have slowly taken up residence on every surge protector in my home and garage. By 5:00 p.m., my house was using only a tiny trickle of electrical power. An hour later, I switched everything back on. All of this was recorded in an app.
No, I wasn’t simulating the effects of an EMP attack or doing a participatory journalism piece on the Amish. I was testing the services of OhmConnect, a startup that uses the smart grid, IoT devices, home automation, and gamification to reduce electrical demand. For my hour of electrical abstinence, I was paid $17.14.
The Big Business (and Cheap Thrill) of Personal Carbon Credits
I’m paying Project Wren $15.70 per month to offset my carbon footprint. Can it do more than absolve my guilt?
Managing modern electrical grids is hard. Renewables are great, but they’re inconsistent. Solar only generates power during the day, and the wind can randomly stop blowing, causing the output from turbines to fluctuate. Because the U.S. grid has very little energy storage capacity (less than 2.5% of total generation), managing it properly is a constant game of balancing supply and demand. If demand spikes too high too quickly, supply might not keep up and voltage drops, causing a brownout.
To balance supply and demand at a moment’s notice, many utilities rely on fast-acting power plants. These plants can come online quickly, to handle surges in demand for power — like on a hot summer evening when millions of people switch on their air conditioners around the same time. But these plants generally burn fossil fuels like natural gas, making them inefficient, polluting, and expensive to operate.