Meet Farmer Dave, a landowner from eastern Washington. In 2009, Farmer Dave contacted a solar solutions company called Questar Energy Systems with a request: He wanted to install 100 solar panels on his property and sell excess electricity to his neighbors.
To Greg Robinson, then the CTO of Questar, Farmer Dave's request seemed both logical and feasible. Why shouldn't somebody be able to sell their self-generated electricity on the open market?
Robinson quickly found that things were not that simple. Farmer Dave would have to become his own utility, build his own network infrastructure or negotiate terms with an existing power company, which would likely pay him next to nothing. Over the years, Robinson encountered enough "Farmer Daves" that he began to question the efficiency of today's energy systems. Unfortunately, this isn't how the market works, he would have to tell people. But maybe it's how it should, he quietly pondered.
In 2014, Robinson co-founded Drift, a Seattle-based energy start-up trying to spark a peer-to-peer utility industry revolution, where today he serves as CEO. Traditional utilities determine how much power to provide 24 hours ahead of time, predicting demand based on the region's average monthly consumption from the previous year. In the event that consumer demand exceeds this very rough estimate, utilities rely on power plants known as peakers, which command a much higher price than baseload power plants.
Drift thinks it can provide a far more accurate, daily forecast of customer demand and drive down pricing. When demand spikes, Drift engages its network of small-scale producers — which includes homeowners with solar panels, family-owned hydro dams and large commercial buildings with excess power — to fill in the gaps with low-cost energy. For example, if an unexpected heat wave causes energy consumption to increase, Drift will procure power from a local solar owner to cover shortages.
The underlying science of Drift's platform — and its ability to better forecast demand — is rife with tech buzzwords like blockchain (the ledger technology that underlies digital currencies like bitcoin), machine learning and peer-to-peer trading (P2P). If there are 100 owners of a hydro-dam, for example, being able to track the value of that plant across the owners and accounting for energy transactions with multiple owners, even lienholders, is made easier using the blockchain. The goal of the business model is easier to understand: to let consumers take control over their own energy supply and eliminate nuisances most people understand — utility middlemen, fees and bureaucracy.
Though it's registered as a utility, several features distinguish Drift from traditional power companies. For one, the start-up doesn't believe in contracts. Customers use a dashboard to choose whether to prioritize cheap or low-carbon energy sources, and they're able to terminate their relationship with Drift at a moment's notice. Drift delivers weekly bills that break down the customer's costs, as well as from what sources — clean or dirty — their power is coming from.