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.
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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.
Getting thousands of people to modify their behavior all at once is devilishly hard.
OhmConnect is a smart-grid startup that takes a different, tech-driven approach to balance power supply and demand. The service works like this. Utilities like California’s PGE pay OhmConnect to reduce power consumption during specific times, which are identified in advance using predictive analytics. The company then mobilizes a legion of users (150,000 as of Summer 2019), who give it access to the web-connected smart electrical meters than many utilities have already installed in their homes.
OhmConnect users voluntarily reduce their consumption during the target times, dubbed “OhmHours.” When an OhmHour is finished, OhmConnect reviews each user’s smart meter data, determines their consumption during the OhmHour versus a baseline, and pays them a portion of the funds from the utility, based on how much power they actually saved.
While the idea is simple, executing it is much more challenging. Getting thousands of people to modify their behavior all at once is devilishly hard. To cajole its users into reducing demand on cue, OhmConnect has employed nearly every tech company trick in the book.
For starters, the company makes heavy use of gamification. Users earn points for their reduced consumption and can unlock tiers (Silver, Gold, Platinum) and bonus multipliers for successfully completing multiple OhmHours in a row — much like a Snapchat streak.
They can cash in points for the right to skip an OhmHour without penalty, participate in prize-only OhmHours (to win bounties like free Netflix for a year), and otherwise make lots of micro-decisions about how best to manage the points they earn. There is Uber-style surge pricing for especially important MegaOhmHours. When users want to cash out, the points convert into PayPal payments.
The results of OhmConnect’s tech-driven model are striking. Since October 2018, the company says its users have saved 683 MWh of power. That’s enough to take four power plants offline, the company claims, and to prevent the release of around 680,000 pounds of carbon dioxide. The most hardcore OhmConnect adherents switch off their circuit breakers, plunging their homes into total darkness and hoping to use no power at all during an OhmHour.
While OhmConnect has been effective at wrangling a large community of users, all of this still requires its customers to take specific actions and to actively choose to forego consumption. People are notoriously bad at this.
A much better approach would be to close the loop, mobilizing IoT tech to automatically dial back consumption during OhmHours, cutting people and their behaviors out of the loop. And that’s exactly what OhmConnect has begun to do.
The model is both extremely compelling and a little troubling.
In May 2020, the company launched its OhmSmart service. For a monthly subscription fee, users receive two or more TP-Link Smart Plugs, Wi-Fi-connected plugs that allow appliances to be controlled via the internet. Users connect these to major appliances in their homes, like a refrigerator or window air conditioner. Users can connect their existing smart home devices, like a Nest Thermostat or the charger for their electric vehicle, too. They then give OhmConnect permission to remotely shut off those appliances during OhmHours. In exchange, they get the benefits of OhmHour savings, as well as bonuses for shorter, dynamic periods of reduced consumption called AutoOhms.
The model is both extremely compelling and a little troubling. Giving control of your physical space to a third-party company and allowing them to remotely disable your heating or turn off your fridge feels more than a bit creepy. It also raises some major privacy issues.
Researchers have shown that smart meter data can be used to determine the activities you’re performing in your home, including when you cook or watch TV. And common IoT devices like the Nest Learning Thermostat know when you’re home or away, potentially allowing companies like OhmConnect to determine when you leave for work, if you’re away on vacation, how active you are around your house, and more. For their part, OhmConnect says it does not sell or share customer data.
There are some serious security concerns here, too. If OhmConnect’s systems were breached, an attacker could theoretically control the homes of tens of thousands of electrical customers at once. They could potentially perform a massive OhmHour in reverse, suddenly increasing electrical demand by turning everyone’s HVAC up to max and switching on thousands of appliances, causing a major, instantaneous spike in electrical demand.
This would essentially amount to a denial of service attack on the electrical grid, overwhelming utilities’ ability to respond to demand, and prompting an outage. Grids are exceptionally well-hardened against supply-side attacks — only one cyberattack on the U.S. power grid has ever succeeded, despite attacks occurring on average every four days. But a demand-side attack would be a new kind of threat; by increasing demand all at once, an attacker could disrupt the grid without needing to gain access to its physical infrastructure.
To OhmConnect’s credit, the company is taking all the right steps to avoid this, such as requiring two-factor authentication, encrypting user data, and storing personal information on physically isolated servers. And ultimately, these threats really aren’t their fault. Part of the reason the U.S. power grid is so robust is that it’s so antiquated, physically disconnected, and complex. Any new technology which makes the grid more coordinated and integrated also makes it more susceptible to attack.
That’s not a reason to avoid smart-grid technology like OhmConnect’s. That argument would be akin to arguing that in the face of traditional cyberattacks, we should shut off the internet. And once one gets over the ick factor of letting a startup remote control your fridge, the benefits are striking.
OhmConnect’s model has major implications for the future of IoT and the smart grid. To date, much of the Internet of Things has been aimed at commercial and industrial users. With the rise of smart speakers and voice control, this is changing a bit. Home automation tech has enjoyed rapid growth over the last several years. But still, most IoT in the home is basically vanity tech. Turning the lights off with your voice has a whiz-bang neatness factor to it, but it’s not the kind of killer app that will make IoT and home automation truly relevant.
Technologies and business models like OhmConnect’s — which coordinate smart devices across multiple homes and allow them to work in tandem, while coordinating with utilities’ systems — may be that killer app. Utilities have tried similar programs in the past, but they’ve been complex and often require the installation of specialized hardware. Services that access and coordinate existing IoT devices could finally make the smart grid a reality. And they could pave the way for other innovative uses of smart home technology.
Electric cars, for example, have massive battery packs that allow them to drive for hundreds of miles between charges. These same battery packs — when plugged in at home — have the potential to dynamically store power, feeding it back into the grid as needed.
With tech like OhmConnect’s, electric cars could become a distributed power storage system. They could absorb excess power from the grid during times when renewable power consumption spikes (sunny days, periods of high wind), and then feed that power back into the grid when demand outpaces supply. They could also serve as a backup power system for individual homes during public safety power shutoffs, lessening the impact of those shutoffs and giving grid managers more options for combating wildfires.
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Using electric cars for this purpose would require massive, real-time coordination of their charging systems across the grid, with predictive analytics to anticipate and immediately respond to demand changes. It would also require financial incentives for users, providing a reason to opt in and connect their car in the first place. In short, it would require a system very similar to the one OhmConnect has already built.
The payoffs could be massive. According to Forbes, electric vehicle power storage will dwarf the grid’s storage needs over the next two decades, reaching 40 terawatt-hours of capacity by 2050. Using connected batteries to manage electrical demand is 90% cheaper than adding new generation capacity, saving millions in infrastructure costs. And technologies like these would pave the way for expanded use of renewables, potentially making a substantial impact on climate change.
And that’s just one application. A fully implemented smart grid would have other massive benefits for society. The U.S. Department of Energy has likened building the smart grid to putting a man on the moon, calling it “our generation’s space program.” According to a DOE report, its benefits include “affordable energy costs,” “fully exploiting… wind, solar, and geothermal.” “reducing our dependence on foreign oil,” and “creating a green-collar workforce numbering in the millions.” The agency says a fully realized smart grid could save as much as $157.8 billion per year by 2025.
In the short term, services like OhmConnect are a way to save a few bucks, test out new technology, and take a small step toward reducing the use of fossil fuels. In the longer term, though, they could prove to be the missing link that makes the smart grid truly viable. If they succeed at scale — and security concerns don’t derail their efforts — they could save billions, while taking a massive bite out of America’s carbon footprint.
Right now, OhmConnect wants to control your fridge. In the future, the company (and its imitators) may control how your power is produced, how it’s stored, and how it’s monitored. In short, they may control the backbone of the smart grid itself.