“To reach 24/7 clean energy, we need to change everything.”
Even when Wenbo Shi was still a scientist at Harvard University, he imagined how he could transform his power grid research into a real-world product. In 2018, he turned that dream into reality when he co-founded the startup, Singularity which provides companies with data-driven grid decarbonization solutions.
Wenbo Shi is a man of action. He knew that his research on power grids and energy would yield benefits to society. And it happened in the form of decarbonization. Together with his team, he developed the real-time carbon intelligence platform with the unusual and funny name “Carbonara”. But what exactly is this technology that shares a name with the famous Italian dish? Why does this young man believe there is an urgent need for reducing carbon and why is it important to make people aware of their CO2 consumption? We met the visionary, who joined MINI‘s URBAN-X startup platform in 2021, and talked to him about these questions, his company, and the big mission behind it.
Wenbo, what is Singularity about?
Our mission is to help accelerate the process towards decarbonization, which literally means the reduction of carbon. Consumers have the power to choose when they use energy, and that has an impact. But one of the problems is that people don’t know how much carbon they’re responsible for. The electricity that we use from the power grid is generated from a mix of sources, such as natural gas, coal, oil, nuclear, hydro, solar, wind, biomass. When electricity is generated using fossil fuels, the carbon intensity is high, since carbon dioxide is emitted in the process. Renewable generation sources such as solar and wind produces almost no carbon dioxide, so their carbon intensity is very low. This grid fuel mix is very different in different regions and changes in real-time, so the carbon intensity of the grid power looks different depending on where you live and the time of day. We provide real-time, granular (editor´s note: detailed data) carbon intensity data from the power grid so that our customers can make better-informed decisions to decarbonize.
You’re saying that we can reduce carbon emissions by simply switching up when we use energy?
Exactly. We published a white paper (editor´s note: Guideline/report with technical informations) about electric vehicles (EV) with one of our customers - Sense. The idea is that when you know how clean or dirty the power grid is, you can time when you charge your EV. You want to do it when the grid is cleaner and cease charging your car when the grid is dirty. Using real data from the field, we demonstrated that across the country we can reduce carbon emissions on average by 8% to 14%. In US states like California, it was over 40%. In Texas, there was an 18% carbon reduction.
That sounds great! Why aren’t we already doing this?
The power grid is a giant physical infrastructure and a very dynamic system. Depending on where you are, you may have more power generation from solar sources during the day. During the night, you may have more natural gas. Then, there are power imports and power exports. People don’t have this information to help them understand what is happening on the grid so that they can utilize it to decarbonize.
How do you go about this?
To track how carbon flows within the system, we collect millions of data points from different sources, like grid operators, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Energy Information Administration. Power grid operators, for example, release data on how much power is being generated by natural gas power plants or by nuclear power plants, solar, wind, etc. But this public data is not usable today, it’s listed in different formats. And two grid operators or government agencies may use a certain name but may mean two different things. Or, they use a different name and mean the same thing.
And how can you still see through all this?
We’re not just collecting data, we´re also cleaning it and making sure it’s in a consistent format. Another level of complexity is that the data today is all about energy consumption. It’s mostly measured in kilowatt or megawatt-hours. You need to apply a carbon model to translate it into carbon. We’ve built a carbon intelligence platform called “Carbonara” that provides this carbon data in a highly granular way, so it’s very detailed both in terms of location and time. We also give you intelligence—forecasts— to optimize not only for costs but also for carbon.
How are things going for Singularity?
This year, carbon has become a hot topic. Many companies are talking about it. Enterprises that started sustainability programs are looking for solutions that can help them meet their commitments. We’ve got a lot of interest from potential customers. Now, we need to deliver, keep up with the demand, and convert the interest into actual revenue. That is where we’re focusing right now. We provide modules and solutions for those who want to make their products carbon-driven. We have ups and downs every day. When you’re a startup, that’s normal life. You can get a “yes” from a potential and very important customer in the morning and feel great about it. Then, they might change their mind in the afternoon. It happens all the time. We also have a lot of fundraising going on. That’s another stressful part.
“People need to take carbon into the centre of the decision-making process. But they need the knowledge first.”
How did joining URBAN-X help?
It gave us a rigorous process. Every week, we had meetings with our partners. We shared a lot regarding what’s happening in the company and the problems that we might have or the business decisions that we wanted to make, then got their advice. URBAN-X feels like an extended team to us. It was super helpful and a valuable experience. They gave us a lot of recommendations, connected us with potential customers and investors, and helped us with branding. Even now that the program has ended for us, I still talk to our partner almost every week. If you look at the “Carbonara” website today, it all came from the URBAN-X program. It’s much more informative than our previous website. Customers who are interested in using our service can now learn more about us through the website. It actually gives us a lot of inbounds.
What change would you like to see in the world?
Climate change is going to be a fundamental challenge to us and our children. If we want to reach the 24/7 clean energy targets, we need to change everything that we’re doing because today carbon is not the pure focus. People need to take carbon into the centre of the decision-making process. But they need the knowledge first. There is generally a lack of awareness and options. How can I make an impact? That’s where I want to see a difference in the future: where people can understand the information and there is an easy solution for them, which is what we're trying to build. We want to embed carbon into everything so that people can make decisions based on their carbon impact. This is our mission.
Do you see any progress in the industry?
I see a lot of hope and optimism. More and more companies are making commitments towards carbon. More and more people are coming into the sustainability area. We also see a lot of startups. It’s booming, and that’s a good thing. We need more people, we need more money, we need more attention, and then we’ll try to find the best way to solve the issue. It’s a very complicated and complex problem, but luckily, we’re seeing more progress. That is really keeping me moving forward. If you cannot see hope, if you’re at a dead-end, then nobody can keep working on this forever. We need that positive feedback loop. And I would say we’re seeing more and more of a positive feedback loop. That’s fundamentally what is driving us. It’s really about hope.
WHAT IS IT ABOUT?
Singularity provides companies data-driven grid decarbonization solutions. The carbon intelligence startup measures real-time carbon on the power grid to help customers optimize electricity consumption to reduce carbon emissions. The company’s main product is a carbon intelligence platform called “Carbonara”. Singularity was part of the URBAN-X Cohort 9 in 2021.
WHY WAS THE STARTUP FOUNDED?
Research shows that intelligently shifting one’s power consumption to times when energy is produced from renewable resources like wind or solar power can reduce carbon emissions by as much as almost 50%.
WHERE IS THE HEAD OFFICE?
Singularity is based in Somerville in Massachusetts, USA.
WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THE PRODUCT NAME?
“’Carbonara’ is a funny name. People think about pasta,” says Wenbo Shi. That’s why the company picked it. “Climate change and carbon emissions is a heavy topic. We want to make it fun and relevant to your life. We want to make it easy.”
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URBAN-X is the platform for founders reimagining city life. Founded by MINI in 2016, URBAN-X partners with startups to build bold technology solutions for a sustainable planet. Breaking from traditional startup programme moulds, URBAN-X provides entrepreneurs from Seed to Series B with individualised and tailored support that accelerates growth and builds successful businesses for the next generation of climate- and city-focused innovators. Core to its platform, URBAN-X offers world-class engineering and design resources, industry-leading investment capital, a global network of investors, policymakers, corporate strategies and end-customers, and exclusive educational content for a global network of founders.
They offer a custom-tailored journey to get to ‘product-market fit’ through an intensive and immersive programme, both virtually and at the headquarters in New Lab in Brooklyn, New York.
URBAN-X works closely with BMW iVentures and BMW Startup Garage to connect teams to internal resources where appropriate. If you want to learn more about URBAN-X, click here.