All of this misses the quiet revolution this feature represents for you and the power grid. When it rolled out its new operating system in October, Apple proved overnight that millions of ordinary people will use their devices to help manage the power grid, even though the vast majority of Apple’s 118 million iPhone users in the United States are never aware of it.
Why an iPhone charging feature is facing a surprising backlash
And that’s exactly the point. As America tries to electrify everything while adding gigawatts of new renewables, we need a way to roll back demand at critical times and absorb excess renewable energy at other times. And we have to do this automatically.
Apple’s clean energy feature is a preview of how we’re going to do it. Ultimately, this flexibility means the U.S. power grid can reduce emissions and energy prices, while rewarding people for connecting their devices to the intelligent power grid. Do you need to keep the iPhone feature turned on? Your decision. But here’s what it means for you – and a clean energy future.
Balancing supply and demand on the electricity grid is a delicate dance. Too much or too little and the net can go down. Renewable energy, generally the cheapest option on the grid, usually ships first. But it often fluctuates dramatically over the course of a day.
Take California. Every morning, as the sun hits millions of solar panels across the state, the power grid is flooded with clean, abundant solar energy. There is often a surplus. Last April, the California grid operator had to shut down nearly 600,000 MWh of wind and solar power, the equivalent of two months of electricity from the Hoover Dam, because of no demand or storage.
Then the situation reverses. Every night, as the sun goes down, solar energy dwindles and utilities must find new supplies, usually from carbon-intensive fossil fuel power plants.
When there isn’t enough electricity to go around, grid operators have two choices: impose blackouts or curb demand by calling on major energy consumers to turn off their machines and begging the public to ease air conditioning.
This imbalance can only get more challenging, says Mike O’Boyle, who leads the electricity program at Energy Innovation, a nonpartisan climate think tank. California is aiming for 90 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035, and the United States hopes to reach net zero emissions by 2050. O’Boyle estimates the country will need two to three times more electricity on the grid than before, with most of the new capacity coming from renewables, and all that variability.
You and I are part of the solution – or at least our devices. Households and small businesses consume the majority of the electricity in the United States. If we want to become low-carbon as cheaply as possible, it is important to be more flexible in the use of electricity.
Americans have cut back when called upon during emergencies. But attempts to change people’s behavior by charging more for electricity at peak times have had only a modest effect: household consumption fell by 2 to 3 percent. “You can’t really trust people to change their habits over time to save small bills,” says O’Boyle. “People need technology that manages it for them.”
So let the machines do it for us. Until recently that was not possible. The iPhone was the first device to coordinate the energy consumption of millions of customers to promote renewable energy. By enabling this across the United States, it showed how nearly a third of the US population would join this kind of grid management virtually overnight, if you make it easy enough.
How iPhone clean charging works
Apple, known for its secrecy, would not comment on exactly how the clean charge feature works. However, based on public statements, Apple appears to estimate when your local energy grid is cleanest by forecasting solar and wind production in the United States. It then shifts some charging to these periods when you’re unlikely to be on the road. If the phone sees you’re in a new location, traveling, or have erratic charging habits, it will remain turned off, according to the company.
Personally, I’ve never noticed a difference: my phone is always fully charged every morning and starts charging when I place it on a wireless charging mat. While I can’t confirm exactly when the feature will adjust my charging, it seems to pick up after 9 p.m., just after California peak hours are over. Although the feature is enabled when you upgrade to iOS 16.1, you can override it. Since its debut six months ago, few people have publicly noticed the feature’s existence, suggesting that not many people have experienced a difference.
Apple wants to go beyond telling your phone when to charge. It wants to ensure that all of its appliances are powered by clean energy it generates around the world. Last April, Apple announced it was investing in a massive 300-megawatt solar project in Brown County, Texas, as part of its $4.7 billion clean energy spending plan to do so.
Your first reaction might be: Who cares? Our appliances use so little power. A phone charger consumes about 5 watts. On a typical charging schedule, that’s about 7.3 kilowatts per year, or just 0.1 percent of the average household consumption in the United States. But it’s true. The emissions from charging the country’s roughly 118 million iPhones are equivalent to about 85,000 new cars on the road, according to data from the Environmental Protection Agency.
This becomes interesting when Apple’s approach is applied to electric vehicles, heat pumps, refrigerators and other large appliances and appliances. Algorithms can slow or stop charging when electricity supplies are tight and prices are high, and feed power back into the grid to fill gaps between renewables. Millions of machines can work together to adjust their temperature by 1 or 2 degrees, sometimes preheating or cooling, to save the power grid with their owners. Utilities may even pay you or lower your rates for the service.
To see what that looks like today, drive 52 miles north of Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Intelligent grid escapes from the lab
Scientists there are testing ways to connect devices to the power grid using everything from Wi-Fi to FM radio signals across California. A computer server transmits real-time data on electricity prices and carbon intensity from utilities. A handful of heat pumps, air conditioners and other appliances then run up and down in homes, schools, offices and apartment buildings across the state, said Mary Ann Piette, a senior scientist with the lab. By adjusting the temperature by a few degrees, these devices essentially store energy in buildings to bridge periods of high prices and emissions on the grid. “Flexible load is a form of energy storage,” says Piette.
It’s all boring infrastructure behind the scenes, but it allows emissions and prices to fall without households flipping a switch. Once people switch on such devices en masse, says Piette, the cost of electricity prices could fall by 10 to 17 percent, according to a Texas study, because the grid becomes much more flexible and cleaner. Within a few years, she estimates, California homeowners could be fine-tuning their own electricity mix. “Buildings can be managed as cleanly as possible with a slider that says, ‘I want to be as economical or as green as possible today,'” she says. “In the future, people will have a choice.”
You may even already own these appliances. LG refrigerators, for example, come preloaded with software that, once connected to the power grid, can adjust their energy consumption. A few groups like OhmConnect, Octopus Energy and Silicon Valley Clean Energy offer to pay their customers a small fee to connect things like electric cars and heat pumps to the early smart grid.
“We are moving to a time when devices listen to grid signals every hour of the year and become intelligent enough to shift their load to the cleanest and cheapest times,” says Piette. “That’s the future.”
If you want to live there now, you can leave that iPhone feature on.