How a Start-up Aims to Cut School Electric Bills and Make Money Doing It

Innovative software could help solar-powered schools maximize the potential of their renewable energy systems.

A school parking lot with solar panels. (Photo: Flickr)

May 22, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Kristine Wong is a regular contributor to TakePart and a multimedia journalist who reports on energy, the environment, sustainable business, and food.

Schools are no strangers to cost-cutting. And with budgets tighter than ever, administrators are looking for any opportunity to save some cash.

Now, a new start-up says it can help solar-powered schools and small businesses tap into a fresh source of savings: their energy bill. Tumalow wants to give schools battery storage systems for free—then use its own software to calculate exactly the right time to discharge the battery’s stored energy.

Tumalow says this can reduce the grid energy consumed during peak demand times by these buildings, which makes up a large percentage of their monthly energy costs.

“After salaries, energy is the second-highest expenditure for a typical school district,” said Tumalow founder Will Gathright, whose company is based in McLean, Virginia. “Implementing this across a large district such as Fairfax County in Virginia, with a student population of 170,000, could save it about half a million dollars each year with no up-front investment.”

The company is leaving the solar panel and battery building to the likes of Solar City and Tesla, focusing instead on its unique software that integrates solar storage controls with smart-building technology, enabling users to monitor their systems. It’s a unique product for the small to midsize building market.

The dashboard interface of the Tumalow system. (Photo: Courtesy Tumalow)

Here’s how it works: After analyzing a year’s worth of energy bills, the software can predict when a building’s energy consumption will be highest during any given month. At this time, the system will automatically discharge the stored energy from on-site batteries, meaning less grid-originating energy is used, and a cheaper electricity bill.

If Tumalow fronts the cost of a battery system, the company will give schools 40 percent of the energy savings and keep the rest. That means no up-front cost for the schools, and a lower energy bill to boot.

Gathright says he started the company not just to help cash-strapped schools but to solve the problem of how to use solar storage batteries as cost-efficiently as possible.

“It seems that a ton of smart people are making really amazing battery systems, but much less work is going into how to use the batteries after you make them,” said Gathright. “If you’re clever on how you set it up, you have an amazing system, because you can control many distributed batteries as if they were one virtual power plant. We’re reducing demand charges for buildings, but it’s also a way to use the battery system to help the grid at large.”

Earlier this year, Tumalow won $25,000 in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy’s SunShot Catalyst program. It used the money to design the dashboard for its software platform.

On a test run of five mixed-use facilities at the Historic Green Village along Florida’s Gulf Coast, Gathright claims Tumalow’s software successfully predicted optimal battery discharge phases 80 percent of the time—translating to a 20 to 30 percent savings on the facility’s electric bill.

And while Gathright can’t give a definite date yet, he says the company is planning to conduct a pilot and install 5-to-10 kW battery storage systems on two campuses in the Schodack Central School District in East Greenbush, New York. With the software nearing launch, Tumalow is working to secure partnerships with battery storage companies, but it hasn’t inked any agreements to date.

“This is just the time where energy open source systems are coming of age,” Gathright said. “At the same time, there’s been recent breakthroughs that have made batteries a lot cheaper and more lucrative to operate…so it’s a matter of timing for them coming to fruition all at once.”