The Obama administration threw a its third datathon (my word) this week dubbed the  “Energy Datapalooza.” It featured about 150 entrepreneurs, policymakers and software developers, among others, and aspired to offer ways to learn new ways to save energy and lower bills from what is supposed to be free and secure data.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Apps for Energy Challenge. CREDIT: U.S. Department of Energy

Government and private partners are releasing new data sets and application programming interfaces, or APIs, as part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s  Energy Data Initiative. This initiative is modeled on similar datathons in healthcare and public safety to innovate with publicly available data.

The White House has a lofty vision of one’s smart phone beeping on a hot summer afternoon and asking if you’d like it to raise your home thermostat a degree or two to save money.  Or envision an easy-to-use software package that lets a building owner perform virtual energy audits at a fraction of the cost of in-person audits, so real savings can be calculated instantly. The White House also wants one to think that this can make building upgrades happen sooner and create construction jobs faster. We’ll see.

The datapalooza included demonstrations of mobile apps and web-based services that are available to families and businesses today, as well as previews of future inventions. How easy they are to use and what information they produce may be another matter.

Secretary of Energy Steven Chu honored the winners of the Department of Energy’s inaugural “Apps for Energy” challenge, whose inventions include innovative applications such as:

  • Leafully, which uses creative comparisons to help consumers understand how their actions impact the world and their wallet;
  • Melon Power, which helps building owners easily calculate their Energy Star score; and
  • VELOBill, which makes it easy to visualize energy usage data, compare it to peers, and make a plan to save energy.

The White House included additional announcements, including next steps in with the “Green Button Connect My Data” initiative.  More utilities  in California and the Mid-Atlantic joined with software companies joined early adopting utilities mostly in California and Texas to enable customers to securely and automatically transfer their own energy data to authorized third parties.

DOE also is launching a new “Vehicles Data Challenge” aimed at spurring technologies that can increase fuel efficiency and protect against distracted driving.

Learn more from the White House’s Datapalooza fact sheet here.

For one example of what could be done with energy data, Greentech Media spoke to one of the companies launching a new platform and service this week, WattzOn.

The Cost of that Old Refrigerator

Launched in 2009 by Twitter Senior Engineering Director Raffi Krikorian and MacArthur “genius” grant winner Saul Griffith, WattzOn started out as a free online tool to help individuals calculate their energy and carbon footprint by entering in their personal data (size of home, commute habits, etc.).

So far, the Mountain View, Calif.-based startup has gotten about 400,000 people to log into its website and check their green credentials against each other and look at averages calculated to deliver localized, personalized tips for saving energy, co-founder Steven Ashby told Greentech Media last week.

On Monday, WattzOn launched its latest tool: an “appliance advisor” to help homeowners compare and contrast the energy and environmental costs of thousands of different makes, models and ages of refrigerators. WattzOn uses reams of data from the Environmental Protection Agency, DOE, the Federal Trade Commission, as well as data from other sources, to estimate each refrigerator’s total cost of ownership, including lifetime energy costs, using regional and national electricity rate data.

There are about 150 million refrigerators in the United States, accounting for about $19.2 billion in annual energy spending, according to 2009 DOE data. More than 45 million of those refrigerators are more than a decade old, which means they were built with old, less-efficient technology that’s only gotten less efficient as it ages, Ashby said.

Indeed, in some cases the cost of keeping that old fridge plugged in for another 10 years can add up to more than the cost of buying a newer model and running it for the same period of time, he said. WattzOn is hoping that its calculator can help lots more homeowners realize that and convince them to invest in a new fridge, saving money and power over the long haul.