A startup emerges to use wireless mesh and the cloud to fight energy theft

AwesenseUtilities call energy theft — like when an indoor marijuana farm taps directly into a high voltage line for its super bright lights — a “non-technical loss” or a “commercial loss.” It’s a bizarrely mundane term to describe thefts which cost utilities billions of dollars in losses a year around the world. For example, Canadian utility BC Hydro has estimated that it’s losing a shocking $100 million each year from power theft.
That security problem is what a young Canadian startup called Awesense has emerged to tackle. The company, founded back in late 2009, has developed a product that uses power line sensors connected through a wireless mesh network combined with a cloud-based application. Utility workers can use the combo to remotely monitor and learn details about how much power their companies are actually distributing, versus how much power is being measured by their billing systems. In other words, “how much revenue they’re losing,” as Awesense founder and CEO Mischa Steiner-Jovic explains it.
Awesense’s technology is a mobile solution — utility workers clamp on the power line sensors wherever they suspect theft is happening, and if no theft is being detected they can simply move the network to another part of the grid. The sensor nodes create the ad-hoc mesh network amongst themselves (via the 915 band in North America, for all you wireless spectrum geeks out there).
The capital expense of the networks are low enough that Awesense has now decided to start selling theft detection as a service. Awesense will install the technology for utilities for no upfront cost, and then take a cut of the revenue saved. Steiner-Jovic says over the past few years they’ve realized that there’s been a lot of interest from utilities for the theft-detection product, but that utility budgets are often times small and rigid.
In addition to growing its theft detection-as-a-service this year, Awesense is hoping to grow its list of international customers, where energy theft is a massive issue. Currently it has customers (it’s not disclosing the names other than Fortis BC) in Canada, the U.S., and Latin America, and it’s looking to Awesenseexpand more into Latin America as well as Asia Pacific and Europe. India has some of the highest theft losses in the world, with close to 30 percent of the power in the country lost to theft (check out some photos of the crazy jerry-rigged power grids of Old Delhi). The former Soviet Union has almost 50 percent. Brazil is at 15 percent.
To date, Awesense has been mostly bootstrapped, and just raised a “seven figure” round from angels last Summer. Steiner-Jovic says the company could be interested in raising a venture round in the future to grow its business. Applying IT tech to the power grid and clean energy is still an area where startups have been able to get funding from some venture capitalists, despite the difficult funding environment for most cleantech.