Impact Series

Seattle startup WattBuy shines a brand new mild on electrical charges by plugging into public vitality information

EV charging station in Portland
A plug-in hybrid vehicle gets an electric boost from a charging station in Portland, Ore. (Credit: PGE)

Want to know the cost difference between driving an electric Tesla or Chevy Bolt compared to a gas-burning car? Or what you might save in energy costs by running your dishwasher or laundry during off-peak hours?

Oftentimes, those questions haven’t been easy to answer. Electric rates can vary widely nationwide and they haven’t been tracked and reported in a single, searchable place. Seattle-based startup WattBuy is looking to change that, by working to expand and improve a free, publicly available U.S. database tracking the price of power.

WattBuy co-founder Ben Hood. (WattBuy Photo)

There are 3,229 U.S. utility providers, but the government’s Utility Rate Database only updates the prices each year for roughly 100 of the largest utilities. It omits current rates for thousands of utilities, including smaller power providers. And it only covers states where the sector is regulated, such as Washington and Oregon, largely ignoring the 13 states with deregulated utilities for residential customers, which includes Texas, states in the Northeast and upper Midwest such as New York and Ohio, plus Washington, D.C.

“We were surprised that data was not already available,” said Ben Hood, co-founder and chief technology officer for WattBuy.

The company, which Hood launched in 2017 with co-founder and CEO Naman Trivedi, collects and shares energy rates in unregulated states where residents and businesses can shop around for their electricity providers. Their platform includes information about power sources for consumers eager to support clean power like solar and wind.

The Utility Rate Database is managed by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), and the project will continue to operate in that framework.

WattBuy co-founder Naman Trivedi. (WattBuy Photo)

WattBuy’s expansion project is receiving $500,000 in funding from Schmidt Futures, a charitable organization providing grants and investments in socially beneficial projects that was founded by Wendy and Eric Schmidt, the latter being the former CEO of Google and former chairman of Alphabet.

Managers of the database currently collect rate information manually from PDF files submitted to Public Utility Commissions. WattBuy is working to automate more steps of the process, and is already able to use machine learning to extract the data from PDFs.

The expanded database could be used in numerous ways, said Hood and Trivedi:

  • Solar panel companies can use the data to figure out which areas have electric rates that they can compete against.
  • Businesses looking to invest in energy-intensive infrastructure could compare rates.
  • Homeowners could make more informed choices about the payback period for installing solar or home battery systems.
  • Regions considering deregulating their utilities will have more information to view the impact on prices. (More than 30 countries, including most of Europe, have deregulated electric utilities. “The U.S. is pretty late to the game for providing choice to consumers,” said Trivedi.)

“This data will be a boon to green energy players and researchers,” said Kumar Garg, senior director and head of partnerships at Schmidt Futures, in a prepared statement. “The rise of consumer choice, distributed generation, building automation and the increasing adoption of electric vehicles makes it critical to provide individuals and businesses with timely, accurate information on electricity costs across geographies.”

The rates for Duke Energy Carolinas varies by time of day and month. (Utility Rate Database Image)

WattBuy will start adding information to the database in the next couple of months and should complete the project by the end of this year. The interface will remain the same, but the team could highlight some interesting areas that academic researchers might want to dig into.

“It felt like a time for us to push this data,” Hood said, “and get it out to everybody.”

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