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Austin Energy develops smartphone application to track energy use

Monday, September 23, 2013 by Michael Kanin

Austin Energy is preparing a smartphone application that will allow residential ratepayers to monitor their electric bills in near-real time. Utility officials hope that the project, produced in conjunction with local firm SmarteBuilding, will encourage ratepayers to make conservation decisions based on the status of their account, and, in turn, reduce demand.


Utility officials plan to study the effects of the program on city energy use.


Utility Vice President for Distributed Energy Services Debbie Kimberly briefed the city’s Electric Utility Commission about the project. There, she suggested that, with a program aimed at ratepayer behavior – akin to the smartphone app – other utilities had seen usage reductions of between one and six percent.


Electric Utility Commissioner Clay Butler set expectations a bit higher. “I think your number maybe a little low,” Butler offered, citing a report that noted reductions as high as 15 percent.


Kimberly told commissioners that the application would be available to all Austin Energy ratepayers on Oct. 1, but that the utility would not widely advertise it until a few weeks later. Kimberly added that she expects a general announcement to appear in November Austin Energy bill inserts.


Austin Energy Product Development Coordinator Liz Jambor told commissioners that the application had been designed for a smartphone. However, she added that it was available to any machine with access to the web.


As part of their demonstration, Jambor and SmarteBuilding CEO Michael Cation logged onto a version of the application via a personal computer. They illustrated features for commissioners such as the ability for ratepayers to set text and/or email alerts as they approach tier-pricing increases.


Jambor and Cation also showed commissioners what officials believe is the operative heart of the application – its ability to chart ratepayers’ use over time. That function allows users to see, graphically, how they are charged via the new tiered Austin Energy rate system. It could also drive the behavioral changes – via ever-potent pocketbook influence – that cause ratepayers to turn down such energy-sucking devices as HVAC systems.


Commissioner Clay Butler wondered if the application could support future uses with smart home technologies and solar energy.


Kimberly responded that the program was relatively simple. “As it relates to smart appliances, I think this ultimately does have some real potential,” she said. “But this is a very, very rudimentary application.”


She added that “many of those appliances right now are not quite configured” to handle the sort of usability Butler asked about.

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