Smart power, chain stores, and social consciousness

In an October 2004 blog essay entitled The energy web I bemoaned the fact that, during the run-up to that year's U.S. presidential election, none of EPRI's [Electric Power Research Institute] excellent analysis and solid planning was being championed by either of the political parties. In the end, though, I concluded that neither could contribute much. Information technology is both the key enabler and a prime beneficiary of the EPRI vision, and information technologists -- not politicians -- will make the difference. "Maybe," I mused, "a new entrepeneurial partnership between energy and IT is all we really need."

Last Friday I got a glimpse of what such a partnership might look like. For my weekly podcast, I interviewed Mike Frost, CEO of Site Controls, a three-year-old Austin startup that's focused on the part of the energy web that can be built out now, for profit, with near-term return on investment and a growth path that could eventually produce macro-level network effects. [Full story at]

This week's column captures some of the key points from my 25-minute podcast interview with Mike Frost. I've extracted a few more of his comments here:

On the franchise-store opportunity: Take a Michaels store, or a Party City. Those things are great big boxes of conditioned air. If you go in and push setpoints five degreee, nobody's going to notice, we've tested it. We can accomplish the same thing that you can do with hundreds of thousands of homes, but if you do it in these retail environments, every one of those is equivalent to 20 or 30 homes, and you can do it with low consequence instead of high consequence.

On building railroads: In order for the intelligent grid to work in most areas, it requires a lot of government subsidy. There typically isn't real strong return on investment. That's why we've chosen the specific segment we're addressing, as a way to get things started, because the ROI for the customer on our end is pretty fast. If Petco can pay to build the railroad -- and it makes sense for Petco, because they lose less inventory, they run their buildings smarter, they save energy, and they have less than 24-month ROI -- then they're paying the freight. Where in other segments -- residential, commercial -- there's nobody to do it, they're all waiting for the government.

On smart energy management as good PR: When things get really bad in California during rolling brownouts, Petco has discovered that by putting a sign on the door that says we're doing our best to conserve energy today, please pardon the inconvenience if it's a little bit warm and a little bit dark -- because they cut the customer lights and they push the setpoints up to 78 degrees, so as a result they shed 30 to 40 percent of the load they'd normally be using -- they find that, from a customer awareness perspective, man, it's great PR. At some point there's going to be a new level of social consciousness in these large retail brands. You already see it at Starbucks, you see it at Petco, it's just going to become the way to behave.

It was a great interview, and has prompted me to think again about transcription. An earlier interview, which included CastingWords' Nathan McFarland, was transcribed by his MTurk-enabled service, and I published and discussed the results. It worked out really well, and I'm thinking about doing it on a regular basis. Of course there aren't only minor corrections to make. Even audio that's edited pretty carefully, as my interviews now are, begs to be rewritten for the page. The trick will be to find the sweet spot at the intersection of time, effort, and quality.

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