Gavin McCormick is Executive Director of WattTime, the tech startup that first developed Automated Emissions Reduction (AER) technology. While a PhD student in energy econometrics at UC Berkeley, Gavin invented the first algorithms capable of detecting marginal emission rates in real time, which make AER technology possible. As a cofounder of WattTime, he then participated in the innovative decision to structure the tech startup as a mission-driven nonprofit rather than a traditional company. Today, WattTime’s work supports Fortune 10 companies, state governments, utilities, and universities.
Tell us about your technology and how it helps public companies manage their GHG emissions.
Renewable energy reduces GHG emissions: every time a solar or wind project adds a megawatt-hour of clean energy to the grid, that drives down production at some nearby fossil fuel power plant by the same amount. Our technology detects exactly which fossil plant your clean energy displaces.
Some fossil plants are up to three times more GHG-intensive than others. So by measuring which power plants a new renewable project will displace, we can measure with unprecedented precision, the reduction of GHG emissions. This is a significant technological breakthrough spun out of research from UC Berkeley; with nearly 2/3 of the Fortune 100 now managing GHGs by setting ambitious renewable energy targets, many public companies come to us just to measure their GHG emissions more accurately than previously possible.
We’ve also developed the ability to detect which plants you’ll displace before a potential new wind or solar farm even gets built, allowing companies to deliberately begin procuring energy that is particularly good for the environment. On average, when a company adopts our technology, it multiplies the GHG emissions reductions from their renewable energy purchasing by 1.3, without affecting their budget.
What are some of the far-reaching implications of your technology?
Our technology works in reverse too—WattTime also measures the exact emissions caused by consuming electricity at a particular place and time. Because power grids must constantly adjust as load and weather fluctuate, in many cases the emissions from one kilowatt-hour of electricity vary dramatically minute-to-minute.
The unpredictability of weather and load opens a fascinating new frontier in sustainability technologies known as Automated Emissions Reduction (AER). AER technology involves the management of emissions by setting electricity-consuming equipment to deliberately tweak its consumption to moments of cleaner power. Soon, you’ll be able to download software from WattTime.org that can “tune” your building’s HVAC system, or your EV fleet, to reduce emissions by syncing their timing with local clean power plants.
Of course, you can’t overdo it. If you tried to only run equipment at times of zero carbon, you’d end up sitting in the cold and dark waiting for a clean time to start! But 70% of U.S. electricity consumption is coming from devices that are partly flexible on exactly when they need to run anyway, thus a huge opportunity for GHG savings here.
How does your software compare to other alternatives in helping companies go greener, cheaper?
Software-based sustainability upends the assumption that going green has to be hard. We often hear from sustainability managers that when it comes to managing GHGs from electricity, there are only two levers they can pull: consume less, or invest in renewables. Both require significant capital outlays, which means high budgets, and long projects measured in years.
Instead of a multiyear project to retrofit all your buildings, you can download AER software to your buildings, as easily as updating your phone. WattTime is a nonprofit, so in the long term we’re actually aiming to make our software products free. Software offers the opportunity for deeper savings by optimizing your next renewable energy purchase and utilizing our data to polish off emission reduction targets.
Speaking of energy storage, how do you see the new energy storage targets in California, Massachusetts and New York affecting GHG emissions?
With these new targets, the cost of energy storage in many regions is poised to plummet. We’ve received excited calls from sustainability managers at public companies asking how to measure the emissions their shiny new on-site batteries might save them.
But unfortunately, there’s a catch. Our data confirms a recent Carnegie Mellon finding that as of today, most energy storage projects actually increase GHG emissions! This is because amazingly, energy storage companies currently have no access to real-time GHG information.
A working group of the largest energy storage companies and utilities in California just concluded that software like WattTime’s could cost-effectively reduce their carbon footprint by 100%. If the CPUC accepts the working group’s recommendations, energy storage in California will become the legitimately green technology it was always meant to be.
We can’t know yet whether New York and Massachusetts will follow suit. But the swift rise of real-time GHG signals means that for a sustainability manager looking at energy storage, the question is rapidly becoming: what software does it run? Depending on the answer, it’s either green or not.
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