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Connecting Clean Energy to the Internet of Things: Honors Alumna Anna Schneider '07 Innovates to Save the Planet

Jul 7, 2016

When she arrived on campus as a biochemistry major and Interdisciplinary Honors student at the University of Washington in 2002, Anna Schneider knew she wanted to be a "scientist of some kind." Like so many undergrads, Anna felt the pressure to choose a path and commit to a major but knew it was a big decision. Too big of a decision to rush. "I began to notice differences between myself and my pre-med peers in biochemistry. They had a real passion for the biomedical impacts of the research we did after school and I realized I didn’t feel that same passion. I loved the classes and being in lab, but there was that one little bit of extra spark that I thought I could find if I just looked hard enough."

Anna Schneider, Honors Croquet League 2004
Studying to be "some kind of scientist": Anna Schneider plays in the Honors Croquet League, circa 2004

Anna first discovered an interest in climate change during her fourth year at UW, while taking Neil Banas's "fantastic and highly interdisciplinary" Honors course Northwest Coastal Stories: Turbulence and Uncertainty in Science and in Culture. "Only in Honors could you take a single topic—the Puget Sound region—and use it as a lens to explore everything from climate change to colonialism. I loved creating a dynamic visualization of wave physics as much as I loved exploring the trickster narrative in Haida storytelling."

Anna finished her Honors thesis and research in biochemistry to earn College Honors with her BS, then continued on for a fifth year to pursue her double major in math and complete her experiential learning in New Zealand, where she started to explore this new passion for sustainability in earnest during her study abroad on the geography of natural resources. "I took Mechanical Engineering 442 when I got back to learn more about renewable energy specifically (the only engineering course I took at UW), realizing I needed a bridge from my studies at UW to pursuing an energy career." This meant taking a really scary step: "I decided to defer grad school at UC Berkeley for a year and instead get a job in the wind energy field."

Unsure exactly how that would come about, Anna accepted a summer internship at a local community energy solutions nonprofit called Northwest SEED. While there, she answered a job posting for a Wind Site Assessment analysis job at 3TIER— leading with her data analysis experience and explaining in her cover letter that "although my coursework may tell a different story, this is what I care about and here's why."

It was at 3TIER that she discovered the world of data-driven decision support for producers and consumers of renewable energy sources. One of the biggest challenges for increasing the amount of renewable energy is that it's inherently variable—the wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine. At 3TIER, Anna's team helped wind farm developers choose sites where their investment would create the most clean energy.

Years later, Anna considers the choice to defer grad school one of her best decisions: "I would encourage current students to take that risk as you consider your future career," she offers. "Without that experience at an energy startup I can’t say that I would have had the knowledge or confidence to found one myself."

But found one she did. After wrapping up her PhD, Anna and her Berkeley colleague, Gavin McCormick, started WattTime to tackle the same renewables variability problem from the energy user’s side. WattTime is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization that's spreading novel technology to fight climate change and reduce pollution, helping energy users drastically reduce their environmental impact without any change in equipment operations, user comfort, or energy costs.

When you turn on a light right now, the electricity is generally drawn from the main power grid, but you might not be aware of the fact the sources feeding the main power grid change every five minutes or so — depending on the time of day, you could be getting your energy from a coal plant, or you could be getting it from a solar farm.1

Consumers using WattTime can see where the energy is coming from in real time. Even better, users can choose intelligent devices that have been programmed to shift energy use to these moments automatically and clean up the power grid.

The company is small, for now, with four full time staff and a team of summer interns who help to make the data systems even more reliable and to build relationships with companies and learning institutions already using compatible hardware, in support of their own sustainability goals. A pilot project in Chicago, supported by the Great Lakes Protection Fund, helps consumers install Clean Power Mode thermostats using WattTime to improve water quality in the Great Lakes, where mercury pollution from dirty energy sources not only contributes to climate change but threatens the lives of fish and other organisms dependent on clean water (such as humans).

"We’re connecting clean energy to the internet of things," Anna said. "For consumers it's for their own personal benefit—people feel good about 'going green' without doing a lot of work. While for corporate applications, a lot of them have a carbon reduction target to reach by 2020. We've also been working with NGOs to improve how you 'count' carbon savings."

When asked what students and alumni of UW Honors can do to help WattTime succeed in its mission to clean up the power grid, Anna invited anyone working in an organization large enough to have a Sustainability Director to get in touch with her team as they actively expand the reach of their program. She adds: "One thing that anyone can do is get onto the waitlist for our Clean Power Mode smart thermostat. Critical mass in a particular region helps determine where WattTime will partner with local companies and utilities to collect and act on the data that can shift our society to clean, renewable energy."

Anna's innovations now directly impact one of the greatest problems of our time (listed by last year’s Honors 100 students as their top concern) but she couldn’t have predicted the specifics nor importance of her work as she began her studies at the University of Washington. As we prepare for our 2016 Global Challenges—Interdisciplinary Answers event on Climate Change, the UW Honors Program looks forward to finding and sharing more stories of how students and alumni are developing unique responses and solutions that reach far beyond our campus.

CLICK HERE to join the Clean Power Mode waitlist and learn more about WattTime.


  1. https://www.navigantresearch.com/blog/thermostat-program-lets-consumers-choose-renewable-energy