Archive for September, 2012

In true North American fashion, I am a car lover. Really, I am tech junkie, but for most of my life that interest has been focused on cars. Before I was four I could name every car on the road. I am sure my father encouraged it to no end, as his interests were similar.

Not an easy thing to reconcile with trying to be an environmentalist and engineer who should know better.  I have investigated electric cars, and was fortunate enough to get to borrow one for a week. I wrote about the experience here. Sadly, I can’t justify the premium (yet!) to purchase one when my Subaru keeps humming along faithfully, and I don’t have a car payment. The same goes for a hybrid.

The obvious solution would be (and should be) transit. But that is not an option for me. I work ~25km from home, and outside the city. The connection between the Toronto Transit Commission and Vaughan Transit simply doesn’t address my route. It would take me 3 hours to take transit for what is usually a 25 minute drive.

I spend about $75 on premium gas for my Subaru every 8-10 trips (yes I know it is not fuel efficient). So each trip costs me about $9 per trip just on fuel, not including maintenance, insurance or depreciation. A quick napkin calculation leads to me to a cost of ownership of about $500 per month for my car. I know I could have bought something more economical, but I didn’t, and now I’m living with the consequences.

This week is smart commute week, and so I decided to pull up my socks and ride my road bike to and from work. 33 km took me an hour and 19 minutes, and judging by Toronto traffic after today’s rain, my trip home would probably have taken an hour by car.  While riding, I enjoyed the Humber River trail, and how peaceful the ride was. No radio, no honking, no one in an Escalade weaving through traffic. The exercise felt fantastic after a bit of a rough day at work too. All this effort, and I basically paid myself $18 to leave the car in the parking lot.

Humber River at Dawn

I obviously cannot do this every day, and I have my gripes about it. Bike lanes from here to Vaughan are almost non-existant. I ride through parks as much as possible to avoid traffic because I don’t feel safe when on a major road without a bike lane, even in a hyper-yellow jersey (too many people driving distracted for my liking). Transit is simply not realistic, and a hybrid or electric isn’t in the cards until my existing wheels need to be replaced.

The location of your home will factor into what your commuting options are. Too many people that I know are perfectly fine spending an hour or more commuting in one direction every day, and the waste of time is staggering, not to mention the money spent on fuel, and the environmental impact of all these cars and road works.

I’ve only done this once (so far) this year, but I plan on doing it more often, if for no other reason than to laugh at people stuck at traffic lights while I ride past a burbling river burning stress and calories. If you’re thinking of riding to work, check out some tips, plan it out, start slow, and say hi to fellow riders.

This post is a follow up to my previous exploration of smart meter apps. I hope to keep having to add to this story, as new, better, and adapted apps come along to help every home owner reduce their energy bill, and the environmental impact of generating this energy.

Specifically, I want to add my 2 cents to Tyler Hamilton’s, concerning an Ontario startup called Energy Mobile Studios, and some thoughts that his post led me to. His blog goes through the founder’s vision, whats next for the company, and is generally an expose about a home grown innovator. They currently have two apps, Powercents and Gridwatch. Powercents is a great guide to time-of-use rates, with similar tips to both Lowfoot and Quinzee.  As an added benefit, it quantifies what you can save by switching specific loads to different rate periods. Its a pretty slick tool for those just learning about TOU and how to do something about energy use.

Gridwatch is also an educational tool, taking IESO public data and crunching it into easily understood graphics about where Ontario’s power is coming from. Take this snapshot taken as Im writing this (9pm, September 5):

iPhone Screen Capture

As a graphical tool it allows you to really appreciate what is keeping your lights on (or, ahem, your laptop typing). You can even shut off specific sources to see what effect that has on CO2 emissions.

Both of these tools are passive though. They are not connected to an actual meter, nor are they able to perform any action. I think I have been spoiled by the automation system that I use at work on a daily basis. I want to be able to do something with this data. In the app.

There is a real market opportunity here for someone with the skill and some time. Combine the following:

  1. The reporting functions of a smart meter and web apps like Lowfoot and Quinzee
  2. Real time, in home data display for users to get instantaneous feedback on their energy use (not next day,  not four weeks later). I mean being able to see when you shut off a light, or when the refrigerator cycles
  3. The ability to take action (with a web connected thermostat, or peaksaver-like load shedding)
  4. Mobile access to #1 through 3.

Easy to say from the comfort of my chair! I hope to see these apps move in this direction, and I’ll be one of the first to put up my hand to demonstrate the solution. I am starting down this path, but the solution is a patchwork: a web app for reporting smart meter data, an energy meter from Toronto Hydro’s Peaksaver promotion, a web-connected thermostat, and individual portals for each.

For now, check out Gridwatch and Powercents in the app store (and again, both are free – anyone seeing a trend here?)