‘Virtual power plants’ for today’s electricity needs

Israel’s Greenlet system helps households and power companies monitor electricity usage and even power down certain appliances to avoid brownouts.

Israel’s Greenlet system helps households and power companies monitor electricity usage and even power down certain appliances to avoid brownouts.

Power plant
Photo by Moshe Shai/Flash90
Instead of creating additional polluting power plants, Greenlet helps power companies create virtual power plants.

With energy costs skyrocketing, consumers and utilities are looking for ways to save money. Israel’s Greenlet may have just what they need: a system that lets consumers easily check on their electricity usage, and more importantly, lets the electric company actually regulate use of an appliance at the consumer’s home or office.

“With Greenlet, utility companies can set up what amount to virtual power plants, allowing them to provide more energy, especially during peak hours, with less risk of brownouts or blackouts” says Liat Shenhav, Greenlet’s product manager.

“In the past, the first response of many utilities to excess demand has been the construction of new power plants. But that is much harder today, since regulations are much tighter. Plus, oil and other fuel is more expensive.”

Instead of adding capacity, Greenlet lets utilities easily manage the electricity they produce much more efficiently. With Greenlet, utilities can monitor – and micromanage – home energy use by keeping track of the power usage of home appliances plugged into the system.

Greenlet outlet
Customers plug their appliance into this unit, and the system does the rest.

Currently, Greenlet operates programs in conjunction with several US utilities, including Austin Power, California’s PG&E, the Citizens Utility Board in suburban Chicago, as well as a large East Coast concern that Shenhav is not at liberty to name, regulating use of air conditioners.

Customers who sign up for the program receive small plug-in devices the size of wall light timers, into which they plug appliances and air conditioners. The devices communicate with the utility over the Internet, analyzing usage and allowing the utility to cut power to the appliance at intervals, or even turn it off. In return, customers get a bonus – such as credit on their electric bill – for every kilowatt hour saved.

Customers like it

It may seem a bit invasive to allow the electric company to remotely turn off appliances, but customers have really taken to the program, says Shenhav.

“In most of the programs in the US, there has been a strong response, with a waiting list in some cases,” she says. “Especially in today’s economic climate, there are many customers who are happy to save $20 or $30 a month, and are willing to work with their local utilities to save money.” The impact on consumers’ usage habits isn’t extreme, so the Greenlet system is easy to adapt to.

Greenlet, with about a dozen employees, was established in 2009 by Avner Cohen and Nir Marom, and is headquartered in Tel Aviv. Funding for the company (“still definitely in startup mode,” says Shenhav) has come from a variety of sources, including Israel’s The Time incubator, from which it graduated in 2010, as well as the Chief Scientist’s Office, and several contracts with utilities in the US and Israel.

The goal is for Greenlet to be able to sign on additional utilities in the US and also in Europe. “We offer the easiest way for consumers, businesses and utilities to save energy,” Shenhav says. “After our trial programs this year, we expect to expand significantly in the next few years.”

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