CityAdapt Blog – Energizing Adaptation: An Interview with Evan Birenbaum, Chief Operating Officer of Chai Energy

Chai Energy, started in 2012, is a Los Angeles-based technology company focused on providing customers with information about their in-home energy usage through a mobile application. Co-Founders Cole Hershkowitz, Ka Suen and Evan Birenbaum have a vision of empowering consumers to reduce their energy footprints in order to live more sustainably and save money.

Today, Chai has over 3000 customers and the company works towards its vision by obtaining data directly from customers’ smart meters; they determine which appliances are being used in residences and how much energy the appliances require. Next, they break down this information into meaningful ways to save energy. Other features of the application include energy saving tips, reporting current usage, an energy timeline and a comparison to neighbors’ energy usage. Over 75% of Chai customers use its demand response features where they can reduce their energy load by more than 48% without having to install a smart thermostat on a demand response control device in the home.

 In this article, I am going to interview Evan Birenbaum, COO of Chai Energy, about taking action on adapting regional energy usage and the implications for transferring energy management technology to Mediterranean-climate cities.

Q: How was Chai Energy formed? How did you get involved?

A: Chai Energy was started by Cole Hershkowitz in 2012. Cole had worked for Southern California Edison, a local utility company, and was testing devices with smart meters to deliver energy information to residences. Ka Suen, another co-founder, had developed an energy-efficient home with Cole as a part of a competition at Caltech that involved innovative technologies used to control lights and thermostats. Their work predated a lot of the technology that is currently out there. Like Cole, I also worked for Southern California Edison creating a sustainability platform with MC-4 member, Jack Sahl. Jack and I collaborated together to define sustainability metrics, frameworks identified material priorities for the utility industry. Additionally, we partnered with nonprofits and NGO’s on projects that would benefit the environment for the social good.

With our respective experiences, we all felt that energy efficiency was the key to energy sustainability. If consumers reduce their energy usage, the benefits are extensive; for example, there is a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and utilities can increase the contribution of renewables in the system. In other words, we get away from our dependence on fossil fuels using these demand response technologies that can be applied to commercial sites as well as residences.

A while ago, I heard Bob Foster, former Mayor of Long Beach, speak at a VerdeXchange event. He told me that, if it’s not on their phone, people don’t care. The information needs to be here – it needs to be in front of you because that is how people are interacting today. This comment inspired me to join Chai Energy because it had the first mobile solution for energy management.

Overall, the idea is that customers have an important role to play and we have to get these programs and opportunities out in front of them better.

Q: Do you partner with other sectors?

A: Yes, we work with non-governmental organizations and nonprofits all the time. We have a lot of conversations with local government focused on sustainable cities because we want Chai Energy to help them meet their energy efficiency and environmental goals. Our product can play an integral role in climate change adaptation planning and sustainability. We eventually aim to work with utility companies as well.

Q: What advice can you give to other Mediterranean-climate cities interested energy adaptation measures?

A: There isn’t one magic bullet that exists to solve the problem. There are a lot of great technologies and thought leaders out there and their ideas need to be heard and adopted so that we can move the needle on climate change. Getting people to take action is essential and we have to turn these great conversations around into mobilization.

That is what got me inspired to move forward with Chai Energy – needing a change. I think that technology can be that change.

Q: Is Chai Energy’s model replicable in other Mediterranean-climate cities given that the structure of utilities and the way energy is distributed differs around the world?

A: I believe that companies like Chai Energy, outside of utilities and government, can really be impactful in helping cities meet sustainability and climate goals. We need to work closely with government to create policies that will enable technology to get into the community. We have to try to work together to make change. Awareness is fundamental – What you don’t know, you don’t know. It starts with education and trying to change behaviors and we need more technology-based solutions to address the problems out there. It is critical to reduce the waste and to understand what waste is in the first place and how it impacts us.

It comes down to understanding what the impacts are upstream and downstream; knowing how it comes out at the end and replicating those positive outcomes; supportive messaging and positive outcomes. We have to get people in the know.

 Q: Are you addressing social vulnerability?

 A: Chai Energy’s solution can work for the underserved communities. In fact, these are the customers that need it the most because they, by and large, have the most inefficient appliances and receive rate subsidies. Chai Energy’s products would be a great solution for them; they can save energy and save money. Chai Energy can help customers, regardless of their socio-economic background, to reduce energy usage by over 20%.

Q: Do you notice any critical gaps in available data?

A: At Chai Energy, we are focused on capturing data and giving it to researchers to make correlations with environmental factors. We have more granular data on energy usage than the utility companies and we can begin to see how customers are changing their behaviors. We want to work with researchers to study the scope of these benefits and see what kind of lessons we can identify. This helps us advance metrics as well. We are asking: Is energy efficiency the answer to climate change or water resiliency? Our data can tell us a lot.

Q: How are you measuring success?

A: It’s really energy savings. We can correlate energy savings with monetization and we can also see what that may mean for the power grid. We focus on matching metrics with energy efficiency. Customers equal data and with that data we can make recommendations for them to save energy.

Q: How are you measuring resilience? Sustainability? Reduced carbon emissions?

A: Again, the same kind of metric; we are tying some of our metrics to the sustainable cities’ metrics and addressing the bigger city goals. For example, how many kilowatts did we reduce in the system?

The real strategy is to capture those savings and then show how effective our application was. What percentage of energy savings does it make up?

For cities to reach these sustainability goals, it is not just the utility companies that should be held accountable – I think it’s a shared responsibility including utility, local governments and residents.

Thank you, Evan!