A US-based startup has come up with a novel model that enables people to share electricity. The ultimate aim is to eliminate energy poverty worldwide.

Gridmates enables electricity sharing to combat energy poverty

Austin, Texas-based Gridmates is basically a fledgling social tool that may ultimately allow anyone in the world to transfer some of their own energy supply to anyone else who needs it. This could mean sharing electricity with your friends, your family, a charity or a humanitarian organisation. It is essentially a peer-to-peer (P2P) electricity exchange but co-founder George Koutitas thinks of it as the PayPal for electricity, or alternatively a bit like a “virtual battery through which people can exchange electricity,” he says.

Still in its infancy, at the moment the Gridmates platform arranges movements of funds rather than an actual transfer of energy. You can go on to the website and indicate the person to whom you wish to donate electricity, plus the amount. The cost will then be debited to your bill and credited to the recipient’s account. Koutitas is however working with electricity companies to organise direct sharing of electricity.

A pilot project is scheduled for launch in December or January. In the meantime Koutitas is already working with Community First! Village, a 27 acre master-planned community designed to provide affordable, sustainable housing and a supportive community for disabled or chronically homeless people in central Texas. The project organisers are trying to supply the village with power from donations alone and there is a similar humanitarian goal behind the  Gridmates project. “I came up with the idea when I was watching the news. I saw people living in the dark because they couldn’t afford electricity. So I wanted to create a tool to help,” explains George Koutitas.

This is of course not the first time entrepreneurs have launched the concept of power sharing. In the Netherlands, for example, a startup called Vandebron (‘From the Source’) runs a website that enables consumers to buy electricity directly from independent producers, such as farmers who have installed wind turbines in their fields, excluding the local utility company from the transaction and so potentially benefiting both supplier and consumer. However Gridmates has an underlying charitable goal and also intends to develop the service beyond electricity, eventually facilitating the transfer/sharing of water and gas as well.

This raises a number of questions. Although the Gridmates objective is ultimately socially-minded, it is nevertheless a company. So it remains to be seen how it will make a profit.  Meanwhile, on the donor side, it might be possible for people or companies who donate energy in this way to obtain tax exonerations and, if so, motivations for such actions might well vary. In some countries, complicated legal issues might also arise when it comes to making direct electricity transfers.

It seems likely, however that many people will find this way of donating to a charitable cause highly appealing. In 2013, the United States recorded a total of $316 billion in donations for that year alone. Moreover, in recent years there has been a substantial increase in the application of modern technology in order to help those most in need. From the smart village in Malaysia to the management of humanitarian disasters, there are many initiatives underway seeking to harness the Smart City approach to promote mutual assistance. 

By Guillaume Scifo