Opower aiming for revolution in energy efficiency

One of the great, overlooked stories of recent decades is the vast improvement in the productivity of American agriculture. Farmers grow more crops on less land, lowering the cost of food–and giving all of us more money to spend on other things.

A similar opportunity awaits in energy. If we could heat and cool our homes and run our appliances while using less electricity, the economy would be more productive–and money that’s now being wasted to be better spent.

So says Alex Laskey, the president and founder of OPower, a fast-growing company whose purpose is to help consumers save energy.

“Look at agriculture in this country,” Alex told me when we met at OPower’s offices in Arlington, Va. “From 1950 to 2000, on the average acre that was being cultivated, productivity grew by 291%. At the same time, the average amount of household income that was spent on  food went from 20 to 9 percent. It dropped in half.”

“Energy is a similarly scarce resource,” he went on. “There ought to be a similar effort into improving energy productivity. There’s no reason why we can’t triple energy productivity over the next 50 years.”

That’s an ambitious goal, but one worth pursuing because energy productivity drives competitiveness and job creation. [See my recent blogpost, Electric cars are sexy. Energy efficiency, not so much, for an explanation of why efficiency is the best source of green jobs.] OPower has developed tools to help people save energy and save money, and in the process help utility companies–its real customers–avoid building costly new power-generation facilities.

I’ve been following OPower, which was launched in 2007, for more than two years. [See my 2010 blogpost, OPower, peer pressure and climate change] The company was started by Alex (at right) and Dan Yates, who were friends at Harvard and are now in their mid-30s. Alex came out of politics, working briefly in the Clinton White House and on Al Gore’s presidential campaign, while Dan started a successful educational software company.

Next page: Reaching 14 million homes