George Koutitas was living comfortably as a lecturer at the University of Thessaly in Greece when he was jolted by a television news report showing a family who kept their home cold and lit candles for light because they couldn’t pay the electricity bills. He realized the people lived nearby.
“What is this?” Koutitas recalled saying. “So the first thing I wanted to do was donate now – electricity credits for this guy I was watching.” But he could not find an easy way to do it.
Two years later, the computer scientist-turned-entrepreneur has developed an online crowdfunding platform aiming to fill that void. Gridmates, the company Koutitas launched in Austin last year, allows the philanthropic minded to chip in online to help low-income people keep their lights on.
The company's first client? A 27-acre master-planned community for the disabled and chronically homeless just outside of Austin’s city limits. If all goes as planned, the Community First Village — a $12 million project of the nonprofit Mobile Loaves and Fishes that has generated plenty of buzz itself — would be the world’s first community powered by crowd-sourced funding.
“We are creating a new pillar, a new direction in the energy sector,” Koutitas said.
The project has excited consumer advocates in Texas, where about 4.6 million people live below the federal poverty line and struggle to pay their utility bills. Some get aid from the government or utilities, but little help exists for those unable to pay a deposit to set up an account.
“Utilities are a problem for lots of [organizations] trying to move people out of homelessness and poverty,” said Carol Biedrzycki, executive director of Texas Ratepayers’ Organization to Save Energy. “I can see where this Gridmates could be very important — just to help people get established into the utility system.”
Since going live earlier this year, Gridmates had taken in 71 donations worth $45,000 as of Monday, coming from across the globe, including Australia, Greece, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. The group seeks $40,000 more to keep the power on at the village for six months.
The village was still under major construction this week, with workers digging trenches and marking pipeline routes. Alan Graham, CEO of Mobile Loaves and Fishes, expects it will be finished some time this summer, when some 250 once-homeless Austinites will move into a collection of micro-homes and RVs.
Residents will either work in town or at the village, where they will have access to places to worship, a medical facility, a garden, a chicken operation and other services that Mobile Loaves and Fishes believes will help them succeed.
“Housing will never solve homelessness, but community will,” said Graham, who spent the last decade planning the project, which has attracted international attention. “We believe that the greatness of our city’s going to be first determined by how it treated the poorest in the community.”
The organization’s first rule for residents is this: Pay your rent, which ranges from $120 per month to $400, depending on the home. Gridmates plans to foot the utility bills. On average, each home will use 30 kilowatt-hours of electricity per day, which costs about $2.50.
Ellis Johnston will be one beneficiary. He spent years living on Austin’s streets after he “turned to drugs, made a mistake and lost his job,” he said, before Graham – who has spent the past 18 years serving homeless people in Austin after working in real estate – helped him turn his life around. For the past two years, Johnston has coordinated volunteers at the village’s community garden.
“It just feels good to do something, because I never had that growing up,” Johnston said. “Even at my parents' house, we struggled to pay the electric bill, and we had to give up on food a few times to do it.”
This summer, he’ll be moving from an RV park offsite into a canvas-sided home in the village.
Would-be donors can enter a dollar amount on the Gridmates website, and a tool will translate it into energy units. The site accepts donations from credit cards and PayPal accounts, with all of it going toward the village – for now.
As Gridmates expands, Koutitas plans to partner with utilities and allow ratepayers to send energy credits directly to those who apply for aid. He envisions giving applicants worldwide – nonprofit groups and individuals – the option to set up profiles so donors can learn more about whom they are helping.
Koutitas said he also hopes to bolster awareness about “energy poverty.”
“We are not aware of it, because it occurs behind the walls of their houses," he said.
Koutitas has had help himself. That includes a $25,000 grant from a U.S. Department of Energy contest, and backing from the International Accelerator, an Austin-based group that encourages foreign-born entrepreneurs to start companies in the U.S.