Website of the month: Everybody loves a “Smart App”

(Editor’s note: This story first appeared in the May 2012 Energy Services Bulletin)

Smart Phones are everywhere, and with them, thousands of application software programs, or apps, for social networking, entertainment, business, education, news and more—much more. Apps process reams of data to give users personalized advice. Your customers are already using them to do everything from following local food trucks to picking stocks.

Some utilities are beginning to harness this phenomenon to educate customers about their energy use habits. Other power providers have discovered apps that help their own employees improve productivity. And some, perhaps most, still haven’t thought about apps as a business tool at all. Well, there is no time like the present to start.

To learn more, do a search on “energy efficiency apps” or “energy saving apps.” Or just visit the iTunes or Android app stores. Developers often offer their apps for free, or they are available for only a couple of dollars. At present, Apple offers a greater variety of apps for hand-held devices, and that seems to be the direction the market is headed. The Apple products tend to be less expensive than Android, and more likely to be offered for free by their developers.

A few examples

For the Stand-up Challenge poster session at the upcoming Utility Energy Forum, Energy Services investigated a few energy-related apps that might be of interest to utilities. Once again, we enlisted Brady Fronk as our chief researcher. The teen-aged son of Energy Services Representative Paula Fronk has often filled the role of the young, tech-savvy consumer for Energy Services fact sheets and posters. Brady’s findings do not represent an endorsement of any product by Western. The apps mentioned below are simply examples of the hundreds of apps available to Smart Phone users.

Keep in mind that our limited sampling is due to the poster size, not to the availability of apps. And more apps are being created all the time.

Green Genie is a highly interactive app that offers consumers ideas for reducing their energy use. (Artwork by Green Genie)

For consumers

These apps build consumer awareness about energy use, and offer ways to reduce consumption. Could you build an outreach program around an app? Could an app help your member services representatives promote an incentive or rebate?

Green Genie — This app suggests more than 100 projects to tackle, like bringing your own grocery bags when you go shopping or reducing your company’s paper use. It includes a glossary of green terms and has a library of “essential reading” on sustainability. Green Genie allows you to submit project ideas, and the database continues to grow as more people pitch in. This is definitely one of the most social, interactive green apps available.

  • Cost: $0.99
  • Target audience: Customers who want to reduce their carbon footprint
  • Ease of use: Very easy
  • What it does:
    • Suggests DIY measures to reduce home energy costs, calculates how much money user can save from implementing projects, calculates measures’ impact on planet
    • Plastics directory for recycling
    • Shares project ideas with other users
    • Defines green terms
    • Lists green products and services
    • Library of “must read” articles and sustainability website links
  • Pros: Good depth of information; jokes and fun features, like rubbing a lamp to get more information; very interactive at social networking level
  • Cons: Some users report difficulty getting carbon footprint calculator to work
  • Why customers would use it: Applying just one measure can pay for app many times over
  • Why utilities would want customers to use it: Shows value of energy saving measures, raises awareness of energy use impacts

Super Green Solutions — Designed by Super Green Solutions Energy Efficiency Products, this app estimates the payback, dollar savings and carbon emission savings of installing energy-efficiency upgrades, specifically Super Green products.

  • Cost: Free
  • Target audience: Consumer
  • Ease of use: Easy
  • What it does: Calculates savings from installing a variety of measures including renewable energy systems, lighting upgrades, ventilation, insulation and energy management
  • Pros: Gives customers an idea of what they stand to save by making building improvements
  • Cons: Images tiny even for app; designed to sell products for SuperGreen Solutions; iPhone only
  • Why customers would use it: Determines if an energy-efficiency project fits their needs
  • Why utilities would want customers to use it: Shows benefits of participating in rebate or incentive program

For utilities

Sparky is a handy pocket reference guide that calculates formulas for electricians based on user input. (Artwork by Sparky)

One of the best things about apps is they put customized reference volumes right in the users’ hands. Think how that could streamline maintenance or installation projects.

Sparky — Based on user input, this pocket electrical reference provides information about motor lead wiring diagrams, wire data types and color coding, conduit offset bends, capacity codes, resistor and inductor color codes and much more. There is no need to work out formulas, just enter your data and Sparky calculates it for you.

  • Cost: $1.99
  • Target audience: Electrical crews, contractors, facility managers
  • Ease of use: Very easy for target audience
  • What it does:  Provides references on:
    • Motor lead wiring diagrams
    • Motor full load current for single and three phase
    • Motor locked rotor current
    • NEMA starter sizing
    • Wire data (ampacity, insulation types and color coding)
    • Enclosure information
    • Schematic symbol reference
    • Conduit offset bends
    • Conduit wire fill
  • Pros: Excellent depth of information; very user-friendly; extremely valuable field guide
  • Cons: Very specific audience, no identifying home screen
  • Why customers would use it: Makes maintenance easier; improves electrical equipment efficiency; ensures installations meet code, efficiency standards
  • Why utilities would want customers to use it: Increases productivity of field crews; helps commercial and industrial customers identify efficiency improvements, ensures proper installation of equipment and services

Targeted uses

More apps are being created all the time that allow users to control equipment and systems—even entire households—from their phones.

Getting in on the action

You don’t have to have your own software developer to give your customers the energy-saving tools they need. Opower is a customer engagement platform for the utility industry that gives power providers a new path to interact with their consumers. Western customers Burbank Water & Power; Glendale Water & Power; the City of Loveland, Colo., and City of Palo Alto Utilities are all working with the company to make saving energy more engaging and—yes—fun.

Even the White House has developed its own energy saving app. The U.S. Office of Science and Technology Policy has teamed up with Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric and utilities across the country for the Green Button Initiative.  The program will give consumers the tools to access their household energy use information and shrink their utility bills.

How about you?

Have you considered how your utility might use apps for customer engagement or education? Have your customers asked about energy-related apps? 

People like Brady are not yet utilities’ main customers, but they will be before we know it. In an industry that must plan for the long-term, it is not too soon to start thinking about the best way to reach your customer five years from now. And get acquainted with the tools they will be using—apps.