How is Opower different from Bidgely

When friends of friends find each other

It sounds like magic. "Zero Touch" is the premise of the Boston company, no contact with the employees who work in the commercial buildings, explains Swapnil Shaw. And yet, says the co-founder of the US startup Firstfuel, their energy bills should drop by 18 to 20 percent as a result of meticulous data analysis.

However, Firstfuel's customers are not the tenants who use the buildings, but the electricity suppliers. So far, they haven't had much customer contact other than reading the meters and sending an invoice. "We help them advise customers," says Shaw. Therefore, he and the employees also stay in the background. In this way, the suppliers could build up a customer relationship. That is important for their existence in the new energy world, which is strongly determined by "distributed energy". Firstfuel, headquartered on the east coast in Lexington, Massachusetts, is doing something similar with commercial buildings what Opower or Bidgely, two other US startups, are doing for single-family homes.

More data available than you can imagine

Shaw sees the expertise that Firstfuel wants to sell, especially in the analysis, where the company has very in-depth knowledge. In order to improve the energy efficiency of an office building, Firstfuel first uses the data provided by the utility company: meter data and address. “We combine that with weather data and with data from public and private databases,” explains Shaw. As a rule, you could find out the age and type of a building in this way. It even works for the most part automatically. If there is hourly meter data, the analysis is very precise. But even if only twelve readings are transmitted a day, they could still do something with them.

From the analysis, the experts can conclude whether the building or its equipment is inefficient, or whether the employees of the companies in the buildings are inefficient in terms of energy. For some effects, however, they cannot exactly differentiate between them. If, as a result of more wind - wind data are included in the analysis - the temperature drops, it may be because the insulation is poor or because a window is open. This then has to be clarified in a conversation.

According to Shaw, the recommendations that Firstfuel gives after the analyzes can save on average between 18 and 20 percent of the energy used, half of which is through purely operational measures in which, for example, one points out and thinks about the windows close. The other half is due to the fact that the analyzes indicate, for example, inefficient air conditioning units, lighting or other devices when these are then replaced, repaired or improved.

In North America, the number of buildings analyzed is in the thousands. Firstfuel is also already active in Germany, after all, Eon is also one of the investors involved.

Calculate self-consumption of photovoltaics

And where is photovoltaics in the business? "For example, we can calculate what influence a photovoltaic system has on consumption data," says Shaw. And thus help, for example, to optimally dimension the system. The potential of load shifts that can increase self-consumption can also be calculated under certain circumstances. In any case, the distribution of utilities should be happy to be able to offer this service too.

The story of Firstfuel is also a story of regulation and deregulation, with the cards switched. The regulated energy markets are not in Germany, but on the other side of the Atlantic. In most states, they are subject to much more stringent regulations than in this country. Governments oblige utilities to set energy efficiency targets; in Massachusetts it was 2.5 percent in 2013 that utilities should save. This gives them an interest in methods like Firstfuel's, according to Shaw. The Agora Energiewende proposal for pay-as-you-go energy efficiency targets for Germany could then please Firstfuel.

However, according to Swapnil Shaw, this also has an economic perspective. Generating more electricity costs five to seven US cents per kilowatt hour. Savings with the help of Firstfuel only cost 2.5 cents per kilowatt hour. And the customer contact that suppliers intensify with the service may be worth so much that it could make sense to use your system without regulations.

Consumption profile before and after optimization in the Reagan Building. Fans in the garages caused the two peaks on the left. Due to the automatic system, they were switched on with too high a power and for too long, which was only noticed through the analysis. Overall, the analysis saved energy costs of $ 825,000 in the year.

Typical start-ups start with an idea

Swapnil Shaw co-founded the company in 2009. The first two years were spent on development. You have commissioned independent studies and tried to find funding. "We have now been in the market for two years and already have 15 electricity suppliers as customers," he says. In addition, there would be authorities, for example the American government agency General Services Administration, "one of the largest building owners in the USA". According to Energy Effiency Markets, the 300 building affected and the agency was enthusiastic about the 26 buildings in the pilot program.

Yes, they are a typical start-up, says Shaw. “Typical start-ups start with an idea,” he says. In addition, as is so often the case, two founders from different areas came together. He comes from IT, his co-founder from building technology. Then there were two professors from MIT. They are experts in data analysis. "In 2010 there were four of us in the company," says Shaw. The first money came from them themselves. This phase took about a year for the first funding to begin. Firstfuel now has $ 20.9 million in funding. In the last round in late 2013, Eon was the lead investor in Series B funding with $ 8.5 million.

Friends of friends find each other

For Germans, it doesn't just sound like a typical startup, it sounds like a typical American story. Shaw had already founded three companies, the latter he sold to Oracle. “Then I was looking for new ideas,” he says. This time it should be something really important, sustainable, geared towards the future, so that his three young children also benefit from it later. The company should have a positive impact on the environment and it should generate profits.

“A mutual friend introduced me to one of his friends and it was really a coincidence. He said I should meet with the two professors. ”A year and a half were wasted on all these conversations. So this example also teaches that it is about opportunities and about seizing them. In the USA, by the way, it is a significant factor that favors the start-ups, according to Shaw, that more people are probably willing to leave their jobs in companies. (Michael Fuhs)

To the start-up scene

In the pv magazine print edition September 2014 you will find focal points on innovations in the solar industry and young companies in the energy market, including analyzes of the environment for relevant start-ups

The Forum solar practice on 11/27 and 28.11. offers start-ups the opportunity to introduce themselves to the industry on the evening before and in elevator pitches on the first day

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