Audrey Zibelman spent two years in the Peace Corps in the late 1970s, working in a village in Chad which had no electricity. She was struck by how the lack of power exacerbated poverty. “For these people I was living with, about 80 to 90 percent of their day was spent just on staying alive,” she recalls.
Today Zibelman, 54, heads a Philadelphia startup backed by $24 million in venture capital that she hopes will eventually help light up remote areas. For now, the 56 employees at Viridity Energy make software used by dozens of large facilities in the U.S., including commercial buildings and factories, to manage their energy, which is usually their second or third largest expense, according to Zibelman. She launched the company in 2008 after convincing Alain Steven, an expert in utility IT systems, to help build the software. While other power-saving technologies exist, she says Viridity is the first in the U.S. that also lets power guzzlers sell their energy back to the grid. That’s an important feature for institutions with on-site solar panels or generators.
Viridity installs software that works with a building’s energy systems to monitor and control heating and cooling, appliances, generators, and more. The software constantly checks the variables that affect how much a facility pays for energy. This includes the price of electricity, which for wholesale buyers like factories can change every few minutes. The software also takes into account weather forecasts, which could cause price spikes, and how much it costs a building to produce its own energy. Viridity then tweaks electricity use to minimize costs. At Drexel University in Philadelphia, a Viridity client, the software knows that certain rooms are better insulated than others. When electricity prices rise, it automatically reduces heat in the law library, where the books trap a lot of warmth. Drexel could make money during those hours by selling electricity from its diesel generators to the grid.
The software builds on Zibelman’s more than 25 years in the utility industry, including as general counsel to the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission. Viridity doesn’t charge for its software; it takes a cut of any revenue its customers make by selling to the grid. Jeremy Rifkin, an adviser on energy policy to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other European heads of state, notes that similar technology has helped over 1 million buildings in Germany sell their power to the grid over the past four years. “We’re beginning to democratize energy,” he says. “Within 25 years, everybody is going to be their own power plant.”
Zibelman expects Viridity’s software to be in hundreds of facilities and projects over $10 million in revenue by yearend, possibly bringing the startup into the black by next year. She hopes that the same software used by Drexel could one day help rural areas wring as much value as possible from small wind or solar farms. “Energy consumption, energy costs—it’s a big part of economic development,” she says.