Nearly one in six Texans cannot afford to pay their electric bills. With the Public Utility Commission’s LITE-UP electricity bill assistance program no longer available, our Texas neighbors need even more support. Our Neighbor-to-Neighbor bill assistance program helps Texans who are struggling to pay their electricity bill. We are excited to have a new digital experience for our program through Gridmates that provides an easy way for people to donate to their Texas neighbors. We spoke with the founder of Gridmates, Dr. George Koutitas, to learn more about Gridmates and the inspiration behind it.
Dr. Koutitas is the CEO & Co-founder of Gridmates Inc. and an Assistant Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Texas State University. He has over 10 years of experience in Energy Efficient Networking and Smart Grids. His vision is to create innovative and impactful services and technologies in the energy and mobile industry that will improve people’s lives.
What inspired you to start Gridmates?
A few years ago, I was watching TV news at my home country in Greece, and saw a family living in a dark and cold home. They were suffering from energy poverty because they could not afford to pay for their utility bills. I realized that the problem of energy poverty occurs within homes of our communities not only in America and Europe but also across the world. Energy is something we all take for granted and energy poverty is a hidden problem that we are not aware of. I wanted to help this family by donating 1 month of energy (approximately $100) in order to alleviate their suffering. I realized that there were no available solutions online for a donation of energy in a peer-to-peer manner. That’s why I came up with the idea of Gridmates. Gridmates is a cloud platform for peer-to-peer energy donations that helps improve the lives of millions of people who may suffer from energy poverty.
Can you tell us a bit about your personal and professional experiences before Gridmates? Were you interested in energy?
Before I started Gridmates, I was a post doctorate researcher in Smart Grids, funded by the European Union, and a Lecturer in Greece. I was also involved in a new research direction called energy efficient networking that aims to reduce energy consumption in wireless networking. The energy industry is experiencing a significant transformation and offers a unique ecosystem for innovation and applied research. With Gridmates I am using my electrical engineering and computer science background to create new technologies that leverage the smart grid infrastructure for the benefit of our communities. I am very excited to be part of the energy transformation!
Talk to us about energy poverty in Texas and how Gridmates helps.
Energy poverty is a term used when a person is denied access to energy or cannot afford to cover basic energy needs. This denial of access can either be due to lack of technology, which is more common in third world countries, or due to financial hardship, which can happen to anyone. Higher concentration of energy poverty occur in places where the income levels are low and the environmental conditions require significant amounts of heating or cooling and the households which also have poor energy efficiency.
Energy poverty occurs in the United States when people and families:
- cannot afford to pay for electricity and other utilities
- must make difficult choices such as buying food or paying for their energy needs
- are disconnected from the energy network and virtually any level of connectivity
Energy Poverty in Texas: More than 4.8 million people in Texas are at or under the federal poverty level and subsequently may have trouble paying their electric bills. They also are eligible for energy assistance from the government (Sources: U.S. Census Bureau; Campaign for Home Energy Assistance — LIHEAP Action Center). On average, a typical family requires $1,549 (or approximately 14,139 kWh) of energy to pay for heating/cooling, refrigeration, hot water, clean clothes and other appliances.
Consequences of Energy Poverty: Energy poverty is the catalyst for a sequence of unfortunate events that can have a dramatic effect in peoples’ lives. These include homelessness (housing instability and eviction), health problems (asthma, stroke, influenza, and child growth problems; mental health problems including developmental disorders, depression and anxiety; food insecurity and even premature death), and employment (reduced job and educational opportunities).
Although the electric bill assistance program, LITE-UP Texas, has ended, several federal programs are still in place to provide relief for energy poverty, but funding is decreasing as the need greatly increases. LIHEAP and Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP) are federal block grant programs distributed in Texas by the Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs (TDHCA). Many electric utilities and federal initiatives offer weatherization programs to support funding for low-income households. In addition, utility bill assistance programs provide immediate aid to low-income utility customers but unfortunately, donor participation to CAPs is very low; in most cases below 3% and in a large part due to low program awareness. With current reduction of federal support to CAP programs, utilities now are trying to increase donor participation and community engagement in the CAPs.
The Gridmates Solution: As a new way to enhance the performance of existing utility bill assistance programs and transform them with digital innovation, Gridmates offers the only cloud-based platform for smart energy donations that connects donors of energy with people in need. The idea behind Gridmates is to leverage Internet technologies and provide a direct and immediate way to improve the lives of those in need. Gridmates harnesses peer-to-peer energy sharing to reduce energy poverty.
Anyone can donate energy by simply using their debit/credit card or PayPal accounts on the Gridmates website. And, in collaboration with Direct Energy and electric utilities, Gridmates converts the dollar donation to the amount of energy calculated, and shows how even small donations make such large impacts. Just imagine that with $25 (which is approximately 250 kWh) you can provide 7 days of energy for the entire home of a family in need!
How is Gridmates impacting the people it serves?
If you have ever experienced a blackout in your home, no matter how briefly, just think about if the blackout lasted for the entire day … the entire month … the entire year. Families who suffer from energy poverty cannot cool or heat their homes, cook for their children, wash their clothes, or have the ability to study during the night. Energy poverty significantly and materially affects their quality of life.
How is Gridmates helping companies like Direct Energy to make an impact in their community?
Direct Energy is one of the most progressive and customer centric energy retailers in North America that offers a huge variety of digital services to its customers. Gridmates is helping Direct Energy transform its existing bill assistance program, called Neighbor-to–Neighbor, with digital innovation and offering Direct Energy customers a fast and simple way to improve people’s lives with donations of energy.
What was the biggest challenge you face with a startup in Texas?
Moving from a European country like Greece to the United States is quite difficult. Texas is one of the most advanced environments for tech companies, especially in the sector of energy. From the business perspective, the greatest challenge was to adapt my way of business thinking and how to develop a product to American standards. From the living perspective, the greatest challenge is the distance from my family and friends. I feel fortunate with all internet technologies that allow me and my family to connect and talk online.
What are the most important words to live by as the founder of a company?
The most important lesson for me is “never leave for tomorrow anything that you can do today” and the three rules to succeed “Work Hard, Work Smart and Work even Harder and Smarter.”
You’re originally from Greece. What do you like most about living in Texas?
Texas is my comfort zone outside the comfort zone of my home country. The everyday life is very similar to the Mediterranean way, with friendly people who offer a welcoming and collaborative environment. I feel lucky that I moved to Texas and I want to thank all Texans for their great hospitality. I immediately felt like I was at home when I first landed in Austin, Texas!
What is the future of energy?
The energy sector is experiencing a great transformation following the computer and telecommunication evolution. The energy industry is moving to a customer-centric approach where the real asset is not the infrastructure but the community engagement and the access to big data. New business models are emerging that place the electric utilities and energy retailers not only as suppliers of energy, but as enablers of digital services. The energy retailers and electric utilities of the future will offer digital innovation to their customers, focusing on customer experiences that will speak the language of millennials and Generation X consumers who live in the world of infinite connectivity.
I feel thrilled that the Gridmates team has forged a partnership with Direct Energy and that we have had the opportunity to create an impactful digital experience that helps improve and energize people’s lives.
Click here to check out Gridmates’ digital experience and see how you could help a Texan neighbor today.
About Dr. George Koutitas
Dr. George Koutitas is the CEO & Co-founder of Gridmates Inc. and an Assistant Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering at Texas State University. He has more than 10 years of industrial and academic experience in Energy Efficient Networking and Smart Grids. He applies his scientific expertise on optimization algorithms, game theory and signal processing for the benefit of the community and the environment. His vision is to develop innovative and impactful services and technologies in the energy and mobile industry that will improve people’s lives. George holds a B.Sc. degree in Physics from Aristotle University of Thessaloniki in Greece, an M.Sc. degree (with Distinction and prizes from ‘Nokia’) in Mobile and Satellite Communications from the University of Surrey, UK, as well as a PhD in Electrical Engineering under EPSRC scholarship from the Centre for Communications Systems Research, UK. George is a member of IEEE and IET and has published more than 40 scientific publications in peer reviewed journals and conferences and is the author of two books. His most recent book ,“The Smart Grid as an Application Development Platform,” is co-authored with S. McClellan and published by Artech House, 2017. George’s research is cited in more than 700 scientific publications (src. Google Scholar) and he has been supported by the U.S. Dept. of Energy (DOE) and European Union (FP7) for his applied research in Smart Grids.