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How Inspire is using big data to make clean energy more accessible

We talked with Inspire CTO Mike Durst about the challenge of creating a tech platform for the company's flat-fee smart energy subscription plan.

CTO Mike Durst at Inspire’s Philadelphia office. (Photo courtesy of Inspire)

This story is sponsored by Inspire and was reviewed by Inspire prior to publication.

With the launch of its Smart Energy subscription plan this year in Philadelphia, Inspire fulfilled a major part of its vision, explained CTO Mike Durst from the company’s Center City office.

“Our mission is all about creating this brighter energy future,” he said. “A pillar of that is getting as many people as possible on clean energy.”

The subscription plan combines a seamless sign-up, flat supply price, cash rewards (when you use less energy than predicted) and energy-saving smart devices to outfit your home. Also, Inspire’s Smart Home app allows you to control the devices and monitor your energy use, all from your smartphone.

Sign up for a 12-month smart energy subscription, which includes 100-percent clean energy for your home or apartment, the Sengled Element LED Smart Lighting Starter Kit and a free Amazon Echo Dot:

Learn more

Streamlining the switch to clean energy

The team at Inspire (a certified B Corp) understood that, for many residents, energy ranks as the second largest household expense after mortgage or rent.

To motivate more Philadelphians to switch to clean energy, Inspire developed a new plan that relies on two key components: predictability of pricing and seamless energy management.

The sign-up process begins with a potential member typing in their address on Inspire’s website. Through a mix of proprietary data sets, the company is able to determine the home’s profile and energy consumption, and then quickly spits out a fixed monthly supply price for electricity.

After the member enrollment and acceptance process is complete, the household’s utility account will seamlessly transition to Inspire with no interruption in service. To accomplish this feat, the company built a technology platform that predicts what a customer’s energy usage will look like over time. The resulting flat subscription price takes the guesswork out of the usually variable monthly energy costs. Importantly for consumers, it mitigates concerns over monstrous household energy bills during seasons when HVAC systems can run nonstop.

Once Inspire’s technology creates a customized plan — with no upfront costs to the member  — it adds smart tech to increase energy efficiency. The accompanying Smart Home app lets people control smart thermostats, lights, and other smart tech throughout their homes — through one single, connected touchpoint.

The app also helps members track their energy usage. They can see how they’re performing against Inspire’s energy usage forecast. In fact, if a home uses less energy than Inspire predicts for any three months, Inspire will give members money back on their bills, as a reward for being energy efficient.

It’s all in the data

The Smart Energy technology platform uses historical info (such as date of home construction and building materials) paired with real-time data (like occupancy and weather trends) and sophisticated models to predict future energy market rates.

“When we apply these data sets together, we can figure out what the subscription rate would be to power your home with 100-percent clean energy,” said Durst, Inspire’s CTO.

Durst describes the technology infrastructure behind the subscription plan and app as “incredibly complex,” with a number of data scientists on staff — in Philadelphia and at its second office in Santa Monica, Calif. — working to tighten and fine-tune the models.

Screenshots of the Inspire Smart Home App. (Courtesy image)

To create the pricing tool, the team at Inspire had to solve some multi-layered problems. “It’s a data, prediction and risk-management problem from a technology perspective,” said Durst, who was the company’s second employee, behind Inspire founder and CEO Patrick Maloney, a Penn grad.

Durst recalls the numerous questions that needed to be addressed through the development process, “Once we find your address, how do we ensure all data is accurate? And if we get conflicting data-points, which one do we pick? And how do we hedge the risk of getting our prediction wrong against purchasing energy on a market that moves every day?”

The Smart Energy subscription plan took about a year to develop from idea to implementation. Durst, a father of two girls, jokingly refers to it as “the birth of his third child.”

Using smart-tech to shape the future of clean energy

In the future, Inspire looks to continue to educate people about how tech can be used to increase energy efficiency, as well as expand the Smart Energy plan outside Philadelphia to markets like New Jersey, Ohio and other Pennsylvania cities like Pittsburgh, said Hemant Kashyap, Inspire’s VP of product.

The company also sees itself as eventually guiding customers on best practices for other energy-related items, such as changing furnace filters, Kashyap added.

“We’ll know your home was built in 1982, it’s 1,200 square feet and four people live there,” Durst explained. “Typically, a home like this should be consuming X kilowatt hours of energy a month. You’re consuming way above that. Maybe you should think about installing better insulation in your attic, and usually, we see energy savings of 12 percent for people who do that.”

“We want to continue to get smarter about the types of things that don’t always have to do with technology, but sometimes can make a bigger impact,” Durst said.

Companies: Inspire
People: Mike Durst

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