State of the Planet

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The End of Traffic: Goals of an Ecopreneur

By Josephine Decker

Savraj is the kind of person you might peg as a visionary.

Throughout time, many have envisioned cars of the future. Savraj's goals are practical and innovative.

Right now, he is the sole owner of his car, which he needs for about 20 minutes every day.  “So, for 23 and two-thirds hours every day, that car is not moving.  It’s parked.  Imagine having half or a quarter as many cars, but increase the utilization.  Imagine my car is shared amongst a bunch of people, or it’s – thanks to automation – routed. The car picks me up and drops me off, and goes on to some other gig.”  Like airplanes, cars would be ‘in flight’ as much as possible.

But ecopreneur Savraj Singh Dhanjal isn’t working on increased utilization at the moment.  He’s working on your house.  Or more specifically, how much energy your house uses.

Wattvision, his Jersey based company, tells you — in real-time — the exact amount of energy your house is using, and how much that costs.

In September of 2008, he got his prototype working, and saw that the real-time use in his parents’ New Jersey home was 4000 watts – the equivalent of four hair dryers going at full blast.  His family thought it must be a mistake, but as they went around the house checking their plugs, they found lights on in uninhabited rooms, the cable TV and other appliances plugged in, and an old electrical piano drawing 700 watts.  By the time they were done, they had cut their energy use by 75% — by simply plugging in Savraj’s device one Saturday afternoon.

Wattvision started the next year.  With Savraj’s background in Microsoft user experience and a degree from Princeton University in Computer Science, he was able to create one of the fastest, easiest-to-set-up energy use measurement tools on the market, a device which now helps organizations like Princeton University as well as individual home-owners keep track of their energy use – and thus keep it down.

Gary, a Wattvision customer based in Chicago, said, “The information produced is fascinating… I spent hours, maybe days turning on and off devices to see how they changed the readings.   I found so many faulty devices in our house it is kind of embarrassing.”  His coffee maker was the most surprising energy sucker.  Keeping the coffee warm after it brewed took a shocking amount of current.  Now Gary puts coffee in an insulated carafe after it brews.  With that and the many other changes he put into motion with the help of the Wattvision monitor (got rid of his doorbell, changed all his lightbulbs to CFLs), Gary estimates he’s saved about $700 in the past 15 months.

So, how much of a difference does it make to turn off a few lights every now and again?  Not much.  But the cumulative savings of paying attention to all of the devices in your home can put a significant dent in your energy bill.  On a larger scale, a device like Savraj’s can help companies note when entire floors of their buildings are lit unnecessarily.

Though some power companies are currently working to give consumers access to their energy use, the power company usually wants you to be using more energy than you are.

Meanwhile, “my goal would be to get people completely off the grid,” Savraj says.

A chicken tractor at an organic farm. Creating your own resources is one way to get off the grid.

Here are few more of his visions for an eco-friendly future:

  • A house that runs itself. “You turn things on and off for two weeks as you use them, and then your house will learn them and do them for you.” The pluses: you never leave the lights on when you leave the house, vampire currents can be eliminated, and your house runs at exactly your efficiency and not more, conserving lots of energy.
  • The end of traffic. “A future where cars drive themselves is a future with no traffic. Everything is magically routed, so that cars can drive two inches apart from each other.  That’s a lot more efficient than driving three feet apart, because you get a better aerodynamic profile.  The first car pushes the air out of the way, and the subsequent cars get the benefit of that first car’s work.”
  • Seeing the stars from Manhattan. “Near my house there’s a highway that’s lit all night, and cars only pass every 15 minutes. When you fly into New York City in an airplane, you see millions of lights.  Most of those are lighting empty parking lots.”  In Savraj’s vision for the future, streetlights are only on when moving cars or people are present.

But as he likes to point out, the key to all of this is that consumers stay informed about how these technologically-advanced solutions work.  A dark future is one where a normal person has no control over the systems that run his life.  Ideally, computers would do more work for us – helping us save energy – and, thanks to increased technical education opportunities, many people would know how to shape and control those systems.

Returning to the present, we can contribute to Savraj’s imaginative visions by keeping our own home energy use down and by encouraging others to do so.  The key is to pay attention:

  • Anything that stays plugged in draws a current.  Older appliances may be particular culprits.  Savraj’s 1985 electrical piano draws an enormous 700 watts of current because electrical energy wasn’t costing a premium at the time of its manufacture.
  • Even in the off position, our appliances draw energy.  Beware of any device with a computer in it – a cable box with DVR, for example.  Those devices use substantially more energy than regular kitchen appliances like blenders and toasters, which just have a simple on-off switch.

Whether you are a sci-fi visionary or a homeowner trying to keep costs down, keeping track of energy use is a step towards understanding how much energy you aren’t actually using.  And in the long term, it’s a step toward a Manhattan with crystal clear air and ten thousand stars in the sky.

Josephine Decker is a filmmaker and performance artist whose work addresses social issues through the lens of magical realism.  She is enrolled in the certificate program at the Center for Environmental Research and Conservation.

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