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Winner Spotlight: Wattblock Targets Residential Buildings’ Common Areas for Drastic Energy Reductions

Dena Levitz Headshot

Dena Levitz

Challenge Cup Reporting Fellow, 1776

Reducing energy usage is a massive concept that’s embraced mostly in a theoretical sense. Wattblock, however, is paring this notion down. The startup’s solution hones in on multi-tenant residential buildings as ripe ground for cutting back on energy in their common areas. In these buildings, the assessments that Wattblock provides can shrink spending by as much as 70 percent, says Founder Brent Clark.

The company won the energy category at the Challenge Cup’s Sydney competition. As a result, Wattblock will go on to the Challenge Festival in May. Clark explained what he’s working on between now and then and the personal experience that launched his startup.

Cutting down on energy usage and becoming more energy efficient are important. But what’s the specific aspect that you’re addressing, and why is it critical now?

We’re trying to reduce energy waste in the common areas of buildings. So in a multi-tenant apartment where you have lots of units, we don’t care what people do inside their own apartments; we’re looking at the energy that’s consumed by the lighting in the hallways, in the basements, the hot water boilers, ventilation fans, air conditioning, the services of the building. So when we say “common-area energy” that’s what it is.

Why common-area energy is important is that it comprises 60 percent of the building’s complete energy footprint. If you’ve got a big, basement car park that just burns all the lights 24/7, 365 days a year, that’s a lot of energy. So it’s our mission to reduce the waste in the common areas of the building. You’ve heard so much about energy savings, reducing carbon emissions, going green, all these things. The reason this part of the market hasn’t been attacked is it’s managed by a committee of people. Because a committee is responsible for all these assets, they’re slower to move, and that’s the opportunity for us—to help those committees that manage these multi-tenant buildings. In the States … you call them HOAs. Ours here, we call them stratas.

And if you look across the planet there’s a trend toward urbanization. People are moving into high-density forms of living. That means buildings of the future have to be energy efficient. And if we want to create smart cities we need buildings that have lower carbon footprints.

Take me through how Wattblock actually works.

We make it so easy that anyone who lives in the building can do an energy assessment of their own building in just a couple of minutes. We just take different pieces of information— the general dimensions of the building and the energy bill—and then we create a simple report that shows them how much energy can be saved in the building.

In the past you would have had to bring in what’s called an energy auditor to do that and they charge you a lot of money, go away for six weeks for an expensive report to come back. So we’re empowering anyone who lives in a building to do an energy assessment quickly. And it’s all online.

How did you decide upon this idea? Was there an experience that prompted you to focus in on buildings for energy savings?

Actually, yes. What happened is I’m in an HOA/strata, an apartment building with about 40 units. A bit under three years ago the chairman of the  committee was given a choice on a Friday afternoon. The electricity from the street to the building, something was going wrong with it  and he was given the option of dropping power to our building for three days or putting the building on a generator. And the chairperson decided to drop power to the building. Now imagine 40 units without power for three days. You have 65-year-old women walking up and down the fire escape with torches. Everyone had to grab everything out of their fridges. Everyone lost $300 or $400 worth of food.

After four hours, all the battery exit lights run out. So the whole building was just dead for three days. And then, with the chairperson that made that choice, everyone in the building just said they wanted to sue him for such a bad decision. And so I got installed as the chairperson.

Then I started running energy saving projects in the building. I had previously done some consulting for an energy company in Australia. It became a little project of mine—how much energy can you save in a building like this? Well, we cut the energy in the common areas by 77 percent. In dollar terms, the building was spending $22,800 [annually] on common energy costs. Today it’s under $6,000.

And then you realized that this was a bigger opportunity that could scale?

Yes. Let me tell you a few things that give you an insight into this:

Buildings on the planet consume $2 trillion in energy each year. And the United Nations has called for every building to reduce its energy consumption by 50 percent. In Australia there’s a bit of a thing where we’re waiting for the government to reduce carbon emissions. But they’re not really fast at doing that. The idea is that if every building in Australia, for example, or in other countries, did the same thing that I did with my building, you could actually crowdsource the achievement of the national carbon emission reduction target that the whole country has signed up to without any government intervention. That’s what we’re aiming at. If governments are going to be too slow to fix the carbon problem this is a way that people can actually get going and do it themselves.

All of the reports and energy assessments that you’re doing are free for buildings. How, then, does your business model work?

Reports are free for buildings, yes. But there are two ways we make money out of this: In our country banks have loans to do environmental upgrades and banks pay for leads for environmental upgrade finance. That’s one way. The other way is when you’ve got two energy companies competing, you can charge a commission to an energy company for locking them into a two-year contract [with a building].

What’s your traction at this point and your growth plans?

We started here in Sydney. We tested Wattblock on 20 buildings in Sydney. Then, the next biggest city in Australia is Melbourne. We’ve, so far, tested it on one building there, and we’ll do more in Melbourne.

The interesting thing is we’re in an accelerator program that’s run by the largest telecommunications company in Australia, Telstra and we’re going on a trade mission to China in May. Telstra is taking us there to five cities in China. That’s our big strategy—to actually move into Asia from Sydney. They’re building the buildings so quickly in China, and they’re not energy efficient. They also have 250 million people moving into high density buildings in the next 10 years.

With all of this attention on energy efficiency and these goals around carbon emissions, do you have direct competitors?

We think we’re coming at his from a different angle, and we’re a first mover. There’s an industry out there, the energy auditing industry—that’s what we’re disrupting.

This was the first year Challenge Cup came to Australia. What was the event like on your end?

First of all, the excitement, it was fantastic. As I said, we’re in a Telstra accelerator program, and two of the other companies were here. We were rooting for our accelerator buddies. So the atmosphere going in was great. The other thing that I really liked was you had the verticals. All of the other [startup pitching] events we’ve been to, you can end up pitching against anyone. This time we liked that it was a vertical challenge. And now we’re just really excited about getting to D.C. It’s a new city for us.

Dena Levitz Headshot

Dena Levitz

Challenge Cup Reporting Fellow, 1776

Dena Levitz is traveling to almost all of the Challenge Cup cities to cover the competition and analyze startup ecosystems around the globe. Dena joins 1776 after finishing the first…