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Dirty Texts: A Berkeley Startup Aims to Tell You When to Start up Your Appliances 

Tuesday, Sep 16 2014

Electrons, it turns out, are very small. They're hard to track. And, try as one may, it's impossible to know if the electrons powering your dishwasher or laptop emanated from a noxious coal-fired plant or a phalanx of wind turbines. Once generated, electrons reside in a vast energy bathtub which we dutifully — and indiscriminately — drain.

So, Gavin McCormick can't tell you where your electricity came from. That's impossible. But his nonprofit, WattTime, can tell you what power plants will likely be tapped to replenish the energy you're draining from the tub. Depending on how efficient those individual plants are, WattTime can calculate cleaner or dirtier times for consumers to plug in.

At one point, early users of this service were alerted via text message. But, since the optimum clean time is often in the wee hours, this led to a good number of jarring, unwelcome texts.

The methodology behind WattTime is maniacally complex, as befitting any activity touching on the generation, transfer, and purchasing of electricity. In this state, the California Independent Service Operator (CAISO) purchases power from utilities such as PG&E, and centrally coordinates "the grid" — ensuring there's neither too much nor too little power available. This is done in realtime, and the ISO determines which power plants will fire up — and when.

By overlapping data from the ISO and the Environmental Protection Agency, WattTime can create an ever-evolving picture of which plants are tapped on, say, a sunny Wednesday morning in September. So, it becomes clear what power plants may be tapped to make up for the power you're using (or going to use). And it also becomes clear, based on which power plants are humming, just how clean a region's electricity is.

In the Pacific Northwest, where wind and hydro power abound, there are intervals (also often in the wee hours) in which energy consumption generates no carbon footprint. During these periods, it would be less environmentally taxing for a Seattle resident to run all of his antiquated, energy-sucking devices full-bore than for a Californian to judiciously operate even high-tech, energy-conscious appliances. "It's a crazy fact," confirms McCormick.

Sans that glut of wind or hydro, Californians can't yet enjoy carbon-free consumption (even if you have solar panels on your roof, when you use the electricity they generate, it deprives someone else on the grid from doing so — necessitating more power generation). But, depending on whether older, inefficient natural gas plants are being tapped or not, there are cleaner and dirtier times to plug in.

Rather than waking you up via text message, WattTime's next step is to create applications that automate your devices to power up on cue.

Or, perhaps, you could just move to the Pacific Northwest.

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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