The rent is too damn high, but big data means the power bill isn’t

You have to love a housing crisis. Rent prices skyrocket, employment decreases, and everyday citizens are left paying the price for both outcomes. If there’s a silver lining to the situation, perhaps it’s that some startups are working hard and using data to ensure we can at least save a few bucks on our power bills.

Empower consumers

The most direct way to do this is to go straight to consumers and let them monitor their power usage so they can change their behavior accordingly. This is where companies such as Wattvision and PlotWatt come into play by connecting to users’ smart meters and displaying energy usage, warnings on thew web and mobile apps. It’s simple information, simply delivered.

Empower utilities to empower consumers

On the other hand, some startups are taking a more-removed approach to reaching consumers by partnering with utility companies, device manufacturers and others to offer a deeper service than an app can provide. Opower, for example, uses big data technologies to let utilities provide advanced analysis of power usage to their users. Companies such as EcoFactor, which announced $8 million in new funding on Thursday, lets utilities offer smart thermostats that users can control over the web, but also uses energy data and weather data to automatically adjust the temperature for maximum efficiency.

Tendril is among the kingpins of this space. It has a slew of utility and appliance partners, as well as a cloud platform on which developers can build applications that leverage its vast collection of energy data. Underpinning all of this is some serious data analysis that, like what Opower and EcoFactor do, learns and recommends based on users’ behavior.

Just make buildings more efficient

Somewhere in the middle of the power-to-consumer and utility-partner approaches lies WegoWise. It’s trying to lower energy costs in multi-family units such as apartment buildings in order to save both landlords and tenants lots of money. It’s also not relying heavily on complex algorithms — just lots and lots of data to help property managers see clearly where their units can stand to be improved.

According to WegoWise Founder and CTO Barun Singh, his company analyzes utility data for about 10,000 multi-family units and collects data from about 500,000 utility bills. Its customers aren’t the types that can justify equipping their properties with lots of sensors and real-time information systems, but they do need some sense of how their buildings are performing energy-wise. So, he explained, WegoWise will let customers compare usage across their own property portfolios, as well as against other similar buildings.

Singh said he thinks services like WegoWise will help ensure more buildings get retrofitted because property managers can identify upfront which ones might need the most work right away. Once they know this information, they can schedule an energy audit and have an expert identify the steps necessary to improve efficiency. The alternative, he said, is for someone to get audits on all their buildings — an expensive proposition they might rather avoid altogether.

“Our goal is not to replace the auditor,” Singh said. “Our goal is to ensure more audits are done.” Already, he added, WegoWise is working with an affordable-housing organization in the Boston area and has identified “huge savings” that landlords could make to save their residents money on their power bills.

On top of their utility bills, WegoWise asks customers for about 30 additional data points — “enough [data] that we can actually do something useful with it,” Singh said. Factors such as year built, living area, type of building, materials and other things can provide valuable insights about how much energy certain units should be consuming assuming normal usage by tenants.

But the key to making WegoWise work — just like consumer products such as Nest, EcoFactor and PlotWatt — is making it a joy to use, Singh said. It has to use data and infrastructure everyone already has, so as to not be too cumbersome. But in aggregate, that ends up generating a lot of information. “It turns out if you have a whole lot of that data,” Singh added, “you can actually do some interesting things.”

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user Kovalchuk Oleksandr.