Innovative Solutions Target the Energy/Water Nexus

Published: Tue 03 Dec 2013
A blog entry by Christine Hertzog

Contributed by:

Christine Hertzog
Managing Director
Smart Grid Library

Christine Hertzog's Blog

My Thanksgiving list put contemporary entrepreneurs at the top.  Their efforts are paying off in the improvements in renewable energy harvesting technologies, increasing the range of cost-effective energy storage technologies, and addressing important environmental and social issues. Today, there are creative innovators developing products and services that save energy or water.  But the really interesting innovations manage to do both.

PowWow Energy, Inc. is one of those companies.  It just won the national Cleantech Open’s Grand Prize for the best company in early-stage cleantech innovation and viable solutions to tough challenges in the world today.  It has a very compelling story for sustainability.  (Disclaimer:  I’m an advisor to the company.)  It uses the data that is readily available from smart meters (which are abundant in California) that are attached to irrigation pumps (also abundant in California and other agricultural regions). It leverages this data using proprietary algorithms to detect anomalies in electricity use patterns that signal a water leak.

Traditional leak detection technologies for water utilities rely on specially deployed acoustic sensors to detect running water and communications networks to relay sensor data to an application that can make sense of it.  Farmers could also opt to install an expensive water meter, but why bother when a smart electricity meter can deliver the relevant information instead? In addition, Olivier Jerphagnon, the CEO and founder of PowWow Energy, explains “leak detection using data from smart electricity meters is often more precise than using water data because of the way most water pumps work.”

This solution also avoids the challenge of dealing with the extremely fragmented water utility market sector by working with the less fragmented, and more technologically advanced electric utility sector.  San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) is using the solution to assist farmers and ranchers in saving electricity and mitigating- leaks in irrigation systems. PowWow Energy’s application is one of the dozen applications currently available on their Green Button Connect My Data platform, a sort of “App Store” for their customers who want to save electricity.

For SDG&E, the aphorism “time is money” could easily translate to “water is energy”.  Electricity generation and irrigation are the two biggest consumers of water in the country. In California, 8% of all energy use goes to agriculture and water pump use, so shaving a percentage or two here can help alleviate electricity consumption– especially at peak load situations.  This is one of many solutions that will help address the San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station (SONGS) closure.

PowWow Energy is releasing its application first in California, a target-rich environment for micro-irrigation systems that need leak detection, but will expand across the Western United States when it raises a Series-A round of financing next year.  The company’s value proposition is particularly entrancing to Silicon Valley investors because it is wholly software-based and offered as a Software-as-a-Service (SaaS).

The sensor hardware – the smart meter – is supplied and maintained by the utility company. PowWow Energy provides the data analytics to find leaks in a reliable and repeatable way.   The data is supplied by the utility companies via a standard Energy Services Provider interface (ESPI) adopted by the Green Button initiative.    It is a response to a White House call for action in 2011.  PowWow Energy’s solution represents a new and different use of Green Button data too – which has primarily focused on residential or commercial building applications.  Currently, 18 utilities in the USA have implemented Green Button data, another 21 are committed to doing it.  Here’s one more application that offers a compelling reason for utilities to adopt the initiative.  Saving electricity and water are huge benefits for farmers and ranchers, as well as electric and water utilities.

Olivier has his sights set on the agricultural water market in the Western United States – valued as a total addressable market of $10B USD, but there’s much more to the company’s potential in harnessing data to address agricultural water and energy uses.  It will be interesting to see what other innovations that address the energy/water nexus come from PowWow Energy and other energy entrepreneurs.

Christine Hertzog
Managing Director, Smart Grid Library