Energy Efficiency Finds Its Cell Phone: Part III

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Elisa WoodBy Elisa Wood
April 15, 2013

The cell phone is quickly becoming a handy tool for tracking home energy use and even switching appliances on and off from afar. It also turns out to be a good way for consumers to view the inner workings of the electric grid – as ISO New England is showing.

ISO-NE in September became the first grid operator to create a free app that gives anyone with a smart phone an easy-to-understand look inside a wholesale electric market.

Nerdy. Yes? But also practical for those truly interested in saving energy.

ISO to Go provides a user friendly tutorial to the arcane world of whole electricity. Users get a quick, real-time glimpse into the frequently changing power conditions and prices in 150 towns and cities in the six-state New England region. A geo feature identifies the city closest to the cell phone user.

Timing is everything when it comes to energy efficiency. A kilowatt saved when the grid is under strain is more valuable than one saved when it is not. But the consumer has no way of knowing the state of the grid.

That’s where this app comes in. Using easy-to-comprehend visuals and text, the app shows the demand and wholesale prices of power in real time. Homeowners can use the information to see the best time to wash clothes or engage in other energy-intensive activity.

Why is timing so important? The New England grid includes about 350 power plants, some new, clean and inexpensive; others older, costly and polluting. If the grid is under strain, most of the plants – good and bad – must operate. When it’s not under strain, the ISO can avoid use of the less efficient resources.

These periods of peak demand are costly. If we avoid using electricity at this time, we reduce wholesale electricity prices. The overall cost of the system decreases, so everyone benefits.

“This mobile application makes it easy for anyone, wherever they are, to check on grid conditions, follow wholesale electricity prices, see what fuels are being used to generate electricity, and learn more about the  region’s power system,” said Gordon van Welie, the ISO’s president and CEO. “As smart phones and other smart devices increase in use, we’re very pleased to offer this new way for people to access information about the grid.”

Using the cell phone to track and control energy use is a relatively new idea, but it is catching on. So far, seven percent of U.S. adults use mobile devices to monitor their electricity usage, according to an April 2013 Internet survey by Zpryme Research and Consulting. That equates to about 16.8 million Americans. It’s more of a male than female phenomenon. And not surprisingly, the younger crowd (25-34) is most apt to use a mobile device to monitor energy use, Zpryme said.

ISO to Go is one of several ways the energy industry is attempting to cultivate a more savvy energy consumer. (See Parts I and II of this series.) It’s slow going. Energy doesn’t tend to capture consumer attention. But that may change as we increasingly pair energy efficiency with these devices that enchant us. Who knows? Maybe that person you see tapping on a cell phone is not on Facebook, but is busy saving us all a little money.

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About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of She has been writing about energy for more than three decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.