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A Bright Idea: Crowdsourcing Electricity to End Energy Poverty
George Koutitas

May, 2015

About two years ago, while watching a special TV news report in my homeland of Greece, I could not believe what I was seeing. The report showed people in their homes, not far from where I lived, huddled around candles at night so they could see. They could not afford the cost of electricity.

With a little research, I learned that energy poverty is a global problem, even in economically well-developed countries.  People suffering from energy poverty cannot afford to cool or heat their homes, cook for their children, conveniently wash clothes or even read or study at night.  They have to make difficult decisions that most of us never and shouldn’t have to face – do they put food on the table or save money to keep the lights on and their house or apartment a safe temperature?

Because it occurs behind the walls of people’s homes, energy poverty is largely hidden but it’s more common that you might think.  In the United States, approximately 48 million people are at or below the poverty line and at risk to suffer from energy poverty.  More than 4.6 million of those people are in Texas with nearly 170,000 of them in Austin where I now live.  The sad reality is that many of our neighbors – often people within a few miles from us -- are literally living in the dark.  Those who can afford some level of electricity live with the constant threat of having their service disconnected when unforeseen financial needs arise.

As a serial entrepreneur and academic in computer science and smart grids, I knew there had to be a solution. With people the world over crowdsourcing so many types of things – funding for new companies and nonprofits, knowledge for online encyclopedias, taxi services and even renting out their homes, why not crowdsource energy, too?  Why not leverage Internet technologies to create a platform where people can give energy to anyone or any organization, anywhere and anytime?  So, in 2014, I launched Gridmates, the world's first cloud platform enabling peer-to-peer energy sharing.

Using the Gridmates platform is simple, requiring only an Internet connection and a few clicks on a smart phone or computer.  “Donors” can get tax credits for donating energy to people who need assistance. Corporations and charitable organizations, too, can share electricity and/or create community challenges to engage their employees and constituents, respectively.  Utilities can use the platform to enhance existing assistance programs, reducing both the need to discontinue service and write off unpaid bills.

Gridmates’ first initiative benefits Community First! Village, which is well on its way to becoming the world’s first community powered by crowdsourced energy.  A groundbreaking project in its own right, Community First! Village is a 27-acre master-planned complex in East Austin that will provide affordable, sustainable housing and a supportive community for approximately 240 disabled, chronically homeless people. This well-thought out village, scheduled to open this year, includes just about everything: a mix of energy-efficient micro-homes, canvas tents, and RVs; communal kitchens, laundry facilities, bathrooms and workshop facilities; gardens as well as chicken and rabbit farming; and even a small market, along with outdoor spaces for performances, entertainment and spiritual worship.

The Gridmates-powered campaign seeks to raise a substantial portion of the estimated $213,000 that Community First! Village will need to power everything during its first full year of operation. Donating energy is easy.  Just visit http://www.mlf.org/gridmates and click on “Donate Energy.”  Select any dollar or energy amount to see how many days of electricity that will provide to a village resident. Complete a secure online transaction via credit/debit card or a PayPal account.  Gridmates converts 100 percent of the donation to energy credits benefiting village residents. Even small donations have big impacts. For example, $15 provides seven days of energy for one person living at Community First! Village.

The energy donor receives both a receipt documenting this tax-deductible contribution and energy-savings tips so s/he can conserve electricity at home, resulting in a “cost neutral” donation.  By learning how to save energy (which we should all do anyway), people can donate more of it to benefit those who could use a little help. 

So far, the Community First! Village campaign has achieved 50 percent of its goal.  Donate energy now to help make that 100 percent and maybe even more.  Be among a select group that is creating the world’s first community powered by crowdsourced electricity.  Stay involved as a registered Gridmate so you’ll always be one of the first to learn about opportunities to share energy in your own community as well as around the country.  Have questions, comments or ideas? Drop me a note at george@gridmates.com.

About the Author

Dr. George Koutitas is the founder and CEO of Gridmates.  One of the world’s leading experts in computer science and smart grids, Koutitas has taught at Greece’s International Hellenic University and currently is an adjunct professor at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas.  For more information, visit www.gridmates.com and/or email george@gridmates.com



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