Peter Ouzounov

Teacher-Entrepreneur-Londoner. Currently geeking out on all that is green, webby, techie https://twitter.com/PeterOuzounov

Jun 20, 2014

Does Uber deserve a little green in its Logo? London, Uber and the Environment

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Uber is a mobile application that can turn anyone with a vehicle into an independent cabbie. Excitement around this simple idea has spiraled into a purported market valuation of $18 billion. However in the past month, the business model behind this valuation is facing existential struggle in many cities around the world where groups representing taxi drivers are contesting Uber’s presence with age-old regulations defining a cab meter and a taxi driver.

This type of conflict is certainly nothing new – technology that enables low cost entry disrupting an established and hefty industry. Let’s approach the problem more globally and consider something other than the welfare of either group. I encourage you to consider the impact of Uber on the environment, starting with London where many black cab drivers staged an Uber protest on june 11th . What you’ll find is that Uber’s fleet is drastically cleaner than the city’s black cabs and it will continue to be so for at least the next four years.

While London is very well connected city through public transport, sometimes you are in a situation where you have to get somewhere a little bit quicker than what the Transport For London offers. On top of this, there are certain areas where cabbies simply do not drive by, and minicabs tend to be unreliable. In this particular situation and location, I was luckily with friend who had used Uber, and in minutes we were negotiating with drivers around us, in shock really with multitude of offers coming in; all we saw around us were white minivans and tiny little hybrid vehicles circling about, the latter probably just locals doing their shopping and errands.

It didn’t hit us until we contacted the third driver that all these hybrids were in fact Uber drivers circling for passengers. Out of the three that we contacted, final taking us back towards central London, all three were Toyota Prius.

The other day I decided to do a little more vigorous research. I called 25 Uber cars from 25 different locations in London, spanning East to West, North to South. Once you request an Uber pick up from a location, you will receive an offer pretty quickly and with this offer you receive name, ratings and car type of the driver. Of the 25 cars that I contacted, all different drivers mind you, there were 18 (over 70% Priuses). Now let’s do a little comparison between the average efficiency and carbon emissions of the cars that I contacted (18/25 Toyota hybrids), and the typical black cab (TX4 model, manual): the average London Uber vehicle has double the MPG and 55% less C02 emission! Remarkable! (all numbers for calculations are from here)

Boris Johnson, London’s mayor, touted a program in January 2014 which was intended to fix these notoriously dirty black cabs: “…all new London taxis will need to be zero emission capable from 2018 as part of a pledge made last year to introduce an Ultra Low Emission Zone in central London by 2020.” This is a noble pledge for the future of London taxi service, but in the meantime, Uber is doing all of the carbon cutting – with fresh drivers entering the market, they are investing in new vehicles and as you can see through my simple sample, more than 70% are going after the most efficient, cleanest option. Note that this is all occurring in the backdrop of London, where a hefty congestion charge was introduced more than 10 years ago in order to, amongst other things, improve the air quality of Londoners.

The struggle between Uber and the London’s black cabs in London is a complicated political one. On top of this some of you might interpret the above results as evidence that free market works. Others will hail the ability of technology to positively disrupt our lives especially as we enter the heart of London’s Technology week. These are really besides the point – what’s certain is that no one is talking about Uber and the environmental impact of its fleet in a city which is apparently at the forefront of modernity yet very slowly improving its iconic but very dirty taxi service.

May 19, 2014

CleanWeb: Breath of Fresh Air in the London Meet Up Scene

CleanWeb London is a meet up for tech gurus who share their belief that environmental sustainability can be just a few clicks away. Even though monthly events attract over a 100 attendees, organizers stay true to the organization's collectivist spirit, moonlighting off the narrow, cobble streets of East London. It’s certainly no coincidence that these streets have become known for antiquated factories converted tech studios at the same time that CleanWeb turned a few like-minded individuals into over 700 members. So besides being an unofficial offshoot of the wider Tech City movement, how does this group fit?

For one, it’s not just another networking or speed dating event for tech co-founders. CleanWeb meetings will often oversubscribe their two hours with short and focused presentations, from profiles of web products to discussions of their impacts, themed around one of the various subjects that follow sustainability and the internet.

A recent meeting in March, titled “Adapting to Climate Change”, consisted of presentations of 3 initiatives, Friends of the Earth, Oxford Flood network, and RapidFTR, which demo-ed their products and detailed their data and other technical issues. As advice bounced around the crowd during the Q&As and deep into the break, reps from a start up called CampusBoard rounded the room, showing attendees how they can use their own platform to look for and offer help on data intensive projects. Finally what one would rightfully call a “keynote speaker” in more formal circumstance, David Gillford from New York City Economic Development Corporation shared lessons from his research on how data initiatives that helped NYC deal with fallout from Hurricane Sandy.

CleanWeb is about problem solving, with everything else taking a secondary role. New attendees combing the London tech scene might be discouraged by how much sustainability is discussed in environmental context as opposed in a commercial sense. On contrary, I find it refreshing and the groups contrasting focus on the product has its roots, well naturally, in coding. In January 2011, an online environmental audit startup sponsored a Hackathon in East London that, amongst other things, turned over many happy participants who understandably met again and again. A few of these had already started a pub meetup under the name CleanWeb, and thus served as an umbrella for the rest. Co founder James Smith describes the dynamic as one “unified by our belief in sustainability and the power of the web though, even if it’s not what we manage to do all day every day.” It’s not hard to imagine anyone laying claim to the now trending environment and big data – but here was a group that was actually doing it without relying on any bubbly social media attention.

CleanWeb have catalyzed a few projects including one of the East London’s most substantive, Open Utility, a platform allowing end users of electricity to not only purchase directly from producers but to also choose by source, thereby screening the dirty(er). The meetup is not just for enthusiasts. While James will say otherwise, in its heart it’s not about networking.

The group fills an essential gap between startups and the idea. The fundamental behind the Lean Startup as envisioned by Eric Reis is that an unburdened set of technically savvy people, by low cost of managing and building their business and product, can experiment with products and markets. Reis explains that it is this experimentation that welcomes constructive failure, this precluding success.

Organizations like CleanWeb are the lean startup without the startup. Once a set of co founders have come together, there is a certain rigidity around their talents and focus. CleanWeb allows for 9-5ers to gain exposure to new ideas, discuss them freely, unguarded by the lack of hungry VCs, and advance their side projects without an economic urgency that can otherwise rush projects to the market.

I spoke briefly to James about whether he planned on providing more exposure to funding opportunities for his members. He definitely intended to invite more speakers from accelerators and incubators, starting with June’s visit by the accelerator Rockstart, but his attitude of course extremely calm, no frill: “we’re hoping to reach out to the London accelerator/VC community to get them along and see what we do at that event.” This certainly is my number one reason that I am a big fan of this meet up: there is this no pressure but all hands on deck vibe which encourages talented attendees to contribute, to question, and to reflect.

This June CleanWeb welcomes Rockstart, the only cleanweb-specific accelerator in Europe, who will be showing off their latest batch of companies.

Apr 14, 2014

Green Button, 2 years ON

Good information is the first step towards any good deed, and indeed today’s information is preceded by a button. The energy sector’s aptly named Green Button initiative is just that – through data integration and an easy to use platform, let's enable American households to access their energy usage for the goal of budgeting and emissions reduction. Inspired by an administration’s call to tackle climate change and fitting within their data.gov movement, a late 2013 WH memo reflects on the private initiative as “...good for the environment, good for our national security, and good for the economy." To achieve these virtuous results, access to information alone isn’t "good" enough: take up, application and added value are also required. Let’s assess,

Take Up

December 2013 White House Memo puts the total number of households that can access their energy use information through Green Button (GB) at 42 million. Further 16 million households are cited to be with utilities that have made commitments to integrate with GB. This is certainly a substantial number, given that the 2010 census counted 115 million households in the US: nearly 50% are covered.

Let’s put this in context with where GB started in 2012: with its launch, initial household coverage was 12 million, with commitments to raise this to 27 million. Overall, not only have commitments been met, but they have clearly expanded. This growth is all and well, however how many households have actually downloaded or given a third party access to their energy usage data? Unfortunately, this statistic is not available – instead we can estimate the impact through the depth of products plugged into GB's platform.

Applications

Data availability? Check. Let's move on to products. GB’s website provides a list of companies that have created services which use the GB platform. Of the listed 35, 25 companies had detailed product information on their website, and of these 25, 60% had domestic products relevant to energy monitoring and management. However, only 16% advertised integration of GB data into their online services. This is not to say that 44% did not offer meaningful access. However, the lack of priority and focus begs the question just how relevant is GB to the business and future of these enterprises?

Mobile and web applications are the future of monitoring – allowing easiest of access and thus the highest opportunity to respond to good information. Department of Energy ran an open competition with the unveiling of Green Button, titled Apps for Energy, which distributed a total of $100,000 across the best applications based on the GB data platform. The competition attracted a healthy haul of 56 submissions, of which 7 were deemed winners and received some monetary reward. Where are these 7 apps today? Are they the mainstay of the mobile, energy conscious community?

Of the seven, only one is available in the iTunes app store: Leafully. ITunes does not report downloads, but using ratings as a proxy, seven ratings doesn't not indicate a larger user base. For example, GasBuddy, an app that helps you find closest gas station, has over 120,000 thousand ratings over its lifetime. Of the remaining six, four are active, but based on their site development and product usability I would only consider two as poised for success: Melonpower and VeloBill. Whether their web apps are individually successful is hard to tell because Melonpower has been acquired by the larger Wegowise and VeloBill is part of ZeroFootprint software, both Wegowise and ZeroFootprint offering products for commercial as well as domestic users.

Overall, it seems that this competition yielded various applications, however they have yet to take hold of users and their developers have either lost steam with their initial ideas or are relying on attention from commercial property owners to buttress domestic product development.

Added Value

Green Button's name suggests an environmental focus of the information – ability of the user to in one click, track the environmental impact of his energy usage. However, this is not entirely the case. This is not a surprise given that there’s a shortage of depth in GB's data to allow developers to make this goal a reality.

Specifically, Green Button provides information on energy use, for gas and electric, up to hourly fluctuations and also daily costs – one can easily infer prices from this. With this, a user can actively reflect on his home’s bill on an hourly basis, changing his regime to lower his costs. While GB and some GB apps can also allow you to monitor your overall use, the link between your energy use and emissions is presumptive – there is a difference between reducing energy intake and getting the same energy at a cheaper price. The latter not being a necessary greener outcome.

For one, there is no information of the source of the electricity by utility - coal, nuclear, renewable, etc., which would at least allow for developers to make some assumptions and estimate emissions. To the extent that the environmental behavior is the focus of this dataset, it is nothing more than a metadata of energy bills. This may be a symptom of GB's conception, a publicly inspired private initiative as opposed to a firm executive directive – hypothetically some of the information on your energy source could make you unhappy with your energy provider or even put him in direct competition with other providers. It's easy to imagine why an industry organized initiative might have an incentive to hold back.

More Can be Done

While the White House’s direction and an industry's effort has brought together nearly half the country’s electricity usage data, it largely resulted in nothing more than a metadata of old energy bills. Developers have not entered the space and created products that engage domestic households with impact. However, there is a deeper problem than developers can address; to achieve impact, the GB will require much more data scope and integration, especially with information that may seem unpopular within the industry, such as specifics of each utility's carbon footprint. After all, these utilities are businesses and unsurprisingly real change will come faster through the pressures of a competitive market. Otherwise, the White House's goal of the virtuously plugged energy users will be as advanced by GB as their site’s beautiful, green typeface.

Mar 14, 2014

That old under the rug dirt on EVs

Tesla stock has jolted to new highs in the last several weeks. What began as a pet project of a bright serial entrepreneur is now reaching economic viability in a niche market. You could not blame Tesla and Elon Musk’s nay sayers; after all his existence is to challenge real world feasibility – taking on gravity with his most recent projects, Hyperloop and his SpaceX. Based on his successful vision at Paypal, SpaceX and SolarCity, I hold strong confidence in Musk and believe that, with time, he can overcome Tesla’s barriers in scalability to not only corner the efficient vehicle market, but also revolutionize transportation as we know it. However, is that a good thing?

Environmentalists around the country will cheer this progress. After all, electric vehicles (EVs) run on just that, electricity and therefore ensure a cleaner, brighter future for us all.

Sadly, it’s not that simple. In fact, there is a strong chance that EVs will do more harm than good to the environment. The possibility of this result has been well established in the energy policy impact and interdisciplinary research community. Here we take a moment to familiarize ourselves with some of the technical findings in light of Tesla’s recent successes.

Researchers study the impact of EVs (and other products) on the environment through what is called well-to-wheels analysis. While the name may imply a comprehensive study from the source of the gasoline to the use of this fuel, it is in fact a broader method of studying the level of pollutants through consideration of the various sources of an energy used by an automobile. In the case of Tesla, the fuel is electricity and a 2013 Department of Energy report projected that by 2035, the well-to-wheels average US CO2 emission of an EV will be nearly 80% higher than that of a conventional gasoline vehicle (with 10% ethanol content)! How is this possible?

While an EV may be more efficient at capturing energy content (as opposed to an internal combustion engine), the sources of the electricity will be substantially dirtier. Take a look at the DOE’s projections (2013) of future electricity by source:

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Little projected change in the future: 2012 numbers are 41% coal, 25% natural gas and 19.7% nuclear (2013 DOE Program Record)

What if we all lived in California in 2035? Would an EV vehicle be drastically dirtier than our conventional gasoline staple? No, it would be marginally cleaner with 5% less carbon intensity. The rest of the US could follow this positive result by reducing coal use from the projected 40% average to the California average of 4% of electricity produced.

Simply purchasing an electric vehicle doesn't automatically reduce one’s emissions, and as a recent study shows, it could in fact increase it. It’s important we continue to push as stakeholders of our environment for cleaner sources of our electricity in order to complement advances in EV technology. Only when we approach the standard exhibited by California, can we feel slightly satisfied.

In fact, the worse case scenario of an energy composition similar to Illinois’s, 80% carbon, would result in 160% dirtier EV automobile. If we commit to EV we must also commit to reducing all other dirty energy production that feeds into our electrical grid.

Is there an alternative to EV? Yes, given the risk of increased emissions due to EV penetration without cleaner electricity, we have to accept hybrid vehicles as the more modest, but safer option. EV can reduce carbon intensity of an automobile by 90%. However, this is only true under complete, 100% renewable electricity. On other hand, Cellulosic Ethanol (E85) vehicles are projected to on average decrease pollution by 70% with little risk of doing otherwise.

Tesla is a wonderful company with an inspired CEO who has already revolutionized several industries. However, in order to reduce our environmental impact, he will require more help from the rest of us than he has received in any of his other ventures. In order to actually reduce emissions with EVs we have to commit to reconsidering our entire electricity production – if this discussion is not possible, it’s best for us all if Tesla remained somewhere between a novelty and a niche.