Roya Sabri | Hawaii 24/7 Reporter
Smartphones everywhere may soon contribute to smarter energy use.
The world’s energy future seems brighter since Kona-based startup company Ikehu won a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant as part of the federal government’s Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) program.
The $150,000 grant was awarded to test Ikehu’s product: a mobile application that creates incentives to persuade residential consumers to adjust their energy use based on supply.
With Ikehu’s patent-pending Demand Response Incentive (DRIVE) platform, power companies use a web service to send incentives to consumers. These text alerts link the consumer to a mobile app. DRIVE verifies energy use through home smart meters.
Holland Wood, president and CEO of Ikehu, and Rod Hinman, chief technical officer, conceived Ikehu — which means ‘energy’ in Hawaiian — when they met to brainstorm ideas to combine smart phone technology with energy conservation and education.
“With those goals in mind, the idea came. It wasn’t obvious at the time that it was a winning idea,” Hinman said.
The co-inventors discovered DRIVE’s potential in 2012 when the U.S. Department of Energy awarded Ikehu their “Peak Energy Usage” award in its Apps for Energy Competition.
The nationally recognized smartphone app will be free to consumers. Power companies will buy a site licence and incentives such as airline miles.
But the cost for DRIVE pales in comparison to the long term and large scale benefits that the NSF identified as worthy of the grant.
The 40-page SBIR grant, which took effect July 1, asked Ikehu to describe the science behind the technology and its benefit to society as a whole. Wood said the grant looks for risky ventures that have great potential for benefiting society.
Having won the grant, the firm will test interest and action of 30 residential consumers who will receive alerts in response to simulated energy conditions. The six-month grant gives Ikehu the opportunity to test the viability of the idea without having to secure a utility partner.
“Hopefully the trial with stir interest and if it doesn’t we’ll figure out how to make it better,” Hinman said.
Hinman hopes successful results from the trial will pique the interest of power companies from around the world. Mass distribution of the DRIVE platform could help change the current energy paradigm by acting as a liaison between utilities and consumers.
Wood said, “Unbeknownst to consumers, the cost of energy changes throughout the day.” Renewable sources, for example, are more intermittent than carbon-based sources. “Solar and wind are variable and thus complicate the process of balancing energy generation with consumption,” according to the SBIR grant abstract.
Therefore, consumer cooperation to reduce consumption during peak energy times can make renewable energy more affordable for power companies to develop.
Incentives have the potential to change demand and modify behavior by offering something consumers will care about — free stuff.
“People like getting free stuff,” Wood said. The application relies on this time-tested assumption.
The demand response area of the market is expected to grow in the next five to 10 years. With growing populations and growing economies, energy consumption will undoubtedly increase.
“(Utilities) are not building transmission lines and other energy infrastructure to keep up with (the growth),” Hinman said.
Hinman said challenges with the grid only happen a few days in the year. In those few days — often the hottest hours of the hottest days of summer — the grid can barely produce or transmit enough electricity.
The DRIVE system provides an alternative for cutting back peak electricity demand without building another power plant that would run at minimum capacity for most of the year and waste resources.
“There is a fair amount of demand for demand response,” Hinman said.
There are other demand systems, Hinman said, “(But) ours is unique in that it is voluntary.” In other programs, people agree to sign up, but the utility still has control over the transmission of electricity. With those systems, the utility turns home appliances off at peak times, said Hinman.
“DRIVE is more of an education piece,” Hinman said. It empowers consumers by educating them and by giving them the impetus to act responsibly.
The incentives may not lead to major changes in consumer lifestyle, but small adjustments in each home in a metropolitan region may lead to significant results.
“If I have 10,000 people turning down the air conditioning a couple of degrees, that’s big,” Wood said.
An informed consumer can build smart energy-use habits. With the proper incentives, he can reduce usage when energy is scarce and wash his clothes or bake a cake when energy is abundant.
Participants can even share their savings and awards with friends by linking from the application to social media sites.
Wood said he is excited about what the grant means for the firm and for the state. As a startup with experienced professionals, the firm is helping to create a “high tech experience” in Hawaii.
“It’s great because it’s computing based. So the firm can have clients all over the world, but stay in Hawaii,” Wood said.
The community benefits from creative resident technology professionals. Hinman has mentored students in the West Hawaii Explorations Academy robotics program for three years with the hope that his involvement will help grow opportunities for technically related work on the Big Island.
“We need more people in science and technology industries,” Hinman said. He said he doesn’t believe science and technology potentials should be limited by geography.
Wood hopes that with world-class and globally reaching firms like Ikehu based in Hawaii, those who grew up in Hawaii will not have to look for jobs elsewhere. They can return to Hawaii to find an career as enriching as one in California or New York.
The SBIR grant will help Ikehu create a positive trajectory for the world’s energy consumption using Kona as its launchpad.
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