The Power of Innovation to Cut Carbon: WattTime at COP23

Today at the Conference of the Parties to the UN Convention on Climate Change (COP23), WattTime—a Rocky Mountain Institute subsidiary—and Microsoft launched a new way to give customers the power to understand and reduce their carbon emissions. WattTime is now supporting European data on carbon emissions, with Microsoft’s free and open source Real-Time Carbon Emissions Platform. The collaboration will be the first software to automatically detect the precise carbon emissions caused by using or generating electricity at any particular time and place in Europe, in real-time. WattTime and Microsoft have collaborated using U.S. data since early 2017.

In an interview with WattTime co-founder and executive director Gavin McCormick and RMI principal Jamie Mandel, we discussed the role of innovation in cost-effective global carbon reduction, and how WattTime is helping customers in the U.S. and now Europe meet ambitious climate goals.

The interview has been edited for brevity, but you can listen to our discussion in full at RMI’s podcast.

Q: What role do you think innovation plays in driving the transition from an economy based on fossil fuels to one powered by efficiency and renewables?

GAVIN: I think the role of innovation is really profound. The costs of clean energy are falling so fast they are changing the tools that make the most sense in cutting carbon and we’re seeing a really profound transition where clean energy is actually cheaper than fossil fuel energy. What’s necessary now is innovation on how we can better integrate clean energy into the grid, how we are going to balance these resources, and how we are going to manage the grid in real time.

We’re moving from an ecosystem where cost was the primary constraint on making climate progress to one where innovation is probably the most important constraint on further progress.

JAMIE: At RMI, we’ve always focused on an energy transition that is business-led and makes economic sense. Therefore it’s really going to be innovation in both technology and business models that will make the clean energy transition both possible and profitable.

Q: Describe how WattTime works. How does it enable customers to save carbon and why is it advantageous over other technologies?

GAVIN: WattTime is the first organization that lets you reduce pollution without reducing energy by providing real-time information on the source of electricity. In reality, there’s so much renewable energy on the grid right now, that more and more often if you flip off that light you’re actually getting completely emissions-free energy. Whether you’re an individual who is trying to cut carbon or a large institution thinking about how to operate a chiller plant to save thousands of tons of pollution, you can increasingly know at what moment you can use energy without polluting.

JAMIE: There’s an important distinction between conservation and efficiency. Getting people to reduce their energy use is always going to have a role to play, but increasingly innovation is really effective for improving the efficiency of those technologies without asking for large-scale behavior change. One of the most powerful elements of WattTime’s story is it doesn’t ask people to change their behavior to save carbon.

Q: What is the carbon-saving potential with WattTime?

GAVIN: A typical device can save about 15 percent of the pollution that it consumes through better timing through WattTime software. We’ve done a back of the envelope calculation to determine that if this was deployed at the scale of devices in the U.S. residential, commercial, and industrial sectors, we would save the carbon equivalent of taking 8 million cars off the road.

When you start to include other countries or sectors, we really don’t know quite how big this can go. We do know there are 26 billion pieces of equipment worldwide already that are capable of deploying software like this quickly and easily, which would profoundly change how the power grids work.

Q: Speaking of opportunities beyond the U.S., you’re headed to COP23 to share some exciting news about opportunities for European customers. What are you rolling out?

GAVIN: Since July, Microsoft has been piloting its new tool, the Smart Energy Foundation, running on Microsoft’s Azure Carbon Emissions Data Platform. This takes WattTime data and provides information and automation to organizations that want to cut their carbon footprint.

At COP23 we are announcing that we’re scaling up our partnership with Microsoft to not just support the U.S. but also Europe. It’s our hope that within the next month, we will have this technology available in 20 additional countries and that’s just the beginning. One of the reasons we’re attending COP23 is to meet with governments and discuss how we can make this technology available to them.

Q: What do you see as being the biggest role for WattTime in supporting city and state players looking to reach the ambitious carbon-reduction targets that they’ve set?

GAVIN: We now can reduce emissions for any city or state in America that wants to go green, regardless of the federal political climate. We don’t need to wait for anyone’s permission. For this reason we’re seeing a lot of innovation in California for example, or cities like Austin, Texas, that have been exploring this technology to make sure that they’re doing their part to mitigate global climate change.

JAMIE: We’re increasingly seeing that cities need to be the lighthouses for change. They have the autonomy and the power to inspire their citizens to change the way they operate, and WattTime is an accelerant for these trends because it puts power in the hands of city and government leaders, citizens, and companies to make energy choices that are aligned with their values.

It’s really a matter of improving visibility associated with emissions on the power grid and then giving those same people the tools to act on that visibility whether consciously or automatically.

Q: What other key trends and tips would you want to highlight for leaders and policymakers as they engage in discussion at COP23?

GAVIN: One thing that comes to mind is around customer choice. My training as a behavioral economist means I’ve been exposed to the latest research on the differences between what a policymaker tends to think his or her citizens want, versus what the data shows us people are actually choosing.

People are looking for a convenient and easy way to reduce emissions, whether or not they have an incentive. New software technologies can make it so painless to reduce emissions that you don’t even need a mandate.

JAMIE: One of the big shifts I’ve seen over the past five years with the energy transition comes backs to that word incentive. It used to be the case that this climate transition was a global responsibility to future generations, and it had a cost associated with it. I’d say there’s still a first cost associated with investing in change, but many—if not most—of the things that need to be done as part of the energy transition are now at equal or lower cost than the old way of doing business. There are also newer opportunities to accelerate that energy transition such as WattTime’s technology that don’t have any infrastructure cost associated with them at all.

So coming out of COP23 I hope that people are motivated to take action, because at the end of the day there are technologies available that can help lower emissions today at a minimal cost.

Image courtesy of iStock.