Energy Points: Science, data and feel-good environmentalism

Today, I’m going to tell you about an intriguing sustainability start-up called Energy Points, and its founder, a Greenpeace activist turned physicist named Ory Zik. But first, a word or two about the kinds of questions that Energy Points hopes to answer.

A not-so-serious question: I used to go through 3-4 pairs of running shoes a year, and hated to throw old ones away. So I’d pack them in a box, and send them to Nike in Oregon. The company’s ReuseAShoe program makes old shoes into playgrounds, or tennis courts, or materials for new shows. Nike has collected 28 million pairs of shoes since 1990. Does this make sense? Or would the world have been better off if I’d just trashed them?

A more serious question: You’re the chief sustainability officer of a big  company. Working with the chief technology officer, you’ve just saved $1 million in energy costs by consolidating data centers and replacing old desktops and printers with efficient ones. Your CEO is so pleased that he’s told you to invest some of the savings in a sustainability project that will make a difference. Do you buy LED lights? Put solar on a warehouse roof? Install low-flush toilers in the restrooms?

“We don’t have any numbers to drive decisions,” says Ory Zik, the CEO of Energy Points, who, at age 48, is starting his third company. Particularly when comparing impacts across different arenas — energy, water and materials — there’s no common language.

“Saving a billion kilowatt hours versus saving a billion gallons of water — what is most important?” he asks. “What do you do–drip irrigation, solar panels, hybrid vehicles?”

Absent good data, the alternative — for companies and individuals — is feel-good environmentalism, or what a scientist I know calls “green bling” — rooftop solar in a shady neighborhood, or bike racks that score LEED points but rarely get used.

Energy Points, a software company, hopes to put science and data into the hands of sustainability decision-makers. The company says its platform

combines advanced analytics with complex resource scarcity data to translate all resources into primary energy, enabling a direct, one to one comparison of domains such as electricity, water and fuel.

Energy Points achieves this

by providing a universal metric and the first calculation engine that converts all metrics and resource domains into energy. Each of these resources require energy to produce, consume or manage – and the amount of energy that each require is measurable to a high degree of accuracy.

That sounds complicated, and behind the scenes, it is. But the goal is to take an immense amount of data and turn it into accessible metrics to help guide corporate and government actions around sustainability.

I met Ory recently in D.C. to learn more. He was visiting EPA, DOE and GSA to try to sell them on the value of Energy Points, which publicly released its software just six months ago after more than a year of development. The company has raised about $4.5 million in financing from Plan B Ventures, a Boston-based angel-style investor that backs clean tech and life science start-ups. It is based in Cambridge, MA, and is advised by scientists from MIT and Harvard.

Before starting Energy Points, Ory was the founding CEO of HelioFocus, a solar thermal company, and of QuantomiX Inc., a microscopy company. A native of Israel, he has a Ph.D. in physics from the Weizmann Institute of Science and started Greenpeace Israel in the 1990s.

“Greenpeace uses a lot of numbers, but the numbers don’t have context,” he told me. “As a physicist, you’re trained to analyze data and use it rigorously.”

What Energy Points has done is created a unit of measurement known, not surprisingly, as an Energy Point. One point is the amount of crude oil needed to produce one gallon of gasoline. Other resources — kilowatt hours of electricity, gallons of water, a ton of solid waste — are then translated into energy points. (Ory compares these to the points that are part of the Weight Watchers’ weight-loss system.)

This isn’t simple because the accounting depends on local conditions. An array of solar panels  in a state that depends heavily on coal-generated electricity has more sustainability value than the same array in a state where more of the power comes from wind or hydro. Beyond that, solar in Phoenix also delivers more sustainability value than solar in Boston, for obvious reasons.

Here’s a map created by Energy Point that compares the fuel mix across the US. Higher numbers indicate a fuel mix with lower carbon emissions. So a company with facilities all around the country that wants to buy renewable energy would do so in regions with low numbers, if it wanted to maximize its impact. (Other maps are here.)

 

None of this, alas, would be necessary if energy, water and materials were priced right. But of course the costs of carbon emissions are not priced into our electricity bills and some places int he US actually give away water for free. Price, Ory told me, is at best a very imperfect indicator of the scarcity of a resource or of its environment cost.

Several customers are now experimenting with Energy Points. They include researchers at Harvard University and several FORTUNE 500 companies, which Ory declined to name.

Unfortunately, for now, the software can’t be used to guide personal decision-making. Should I spend my extra bucks on wind-powered electricity, organic food, carbon offsets, new windows for my home or none of the above? Until we price things right, it’s anybody’s guess.

Comments

  1. “None of this, alas, would be necessary if energy, water and materials were priced right.”

    That simple truism masks one of the most difficult tasks conceivable.

    What is the “RIGHT” price for carbon emissions? Does anyone KNOW?

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