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Feb 192010
 

By Bill Sullivan
Green Right Now

Lately, it seems, just about everyone is taking an interest in helping you manage your home energy consumption.

Hohm is Microsoft's bid to get into home energy management. Image: microsoft.com

Hohm is Microsoft's attempt to get into home energy management. (Image: microsoft.com)

Microsoft weighed in with its Hohm offering last summer. Google touts its PowerMeter service. Apple is patenting a system to optimize the powering of your network of iPods, laptops, and electronic gadgets. Intel has added an energy component to its Home Dashboard Concept.

Small wonder. According to a December, 2009, report from Pike Research, the market for home energy management systems and energy information displays (EIDs) will include 28.1 million users worldwide by 2015.

“Energy information displays are the face of the smart grid,” managing director Clint Wheelock said. “These systems will provide consumers with an unprecedented level of visibility into, and control over, the consumption of electricity within their homes, providing a significant opportunity for efficiency improvements and cost savings.”

Pike forecasts that in-home display devices will be the largest EID category, with 14.4 million units shipped by 2015. Web-based dashboards also will be a major component with 11.1 million users, followed by mobile phone energy applications with 2.6 million.

Image: Pike Research

Image: Pike Research

With that kind of interest, Pike notes, the vendor landscape is crowded and competitive. In addition to the aforementioned heavy hitters, Pike cites Control4, eMeter, Energate, Energy Inc., Green Energy Options, GridPoint, Onzo, OpenPeak, Silver Spring Networks, and Tendril Networks as potential major players.

Obviously, plenty of folks have come to believe there is money to be made in helping you save some green of your own. For the moment, however, there seems to be less than universal agreement on just how to go about all that.

Here’s a look at some of the contenders and their current approach:

Microsoft Hohm: We start here simply because Hohm is one of the more accessible of the new tools. It’s also free, and your home doesn’t have to be equipped with one of the new Advanced Metering Systems to use it (although this last point seems to be a decidedly mixed bag).

Hohm allows you to answer up to 200 questions, describing your residence and appliances in detail. If your local utility is on board (and very few are at the moment), you can have your consumption fed directly into Hohm. If not, you can enter the numbers yourself. If you are really lazy, you can do as little as punch in your zip code to get information of average costs where you live.

The more data you enter, the more relevant your feedback will be. Hohm (the names stems from “ohm,” a unit of electrical resistance) will produce a pie chart of average consumption in different categories (heating, cooling, lighting, etc.) It also offers a look at where you stand on a spectrum of efficient and inefficient homes in your area, based on monthly energy costs. Your zip code allows the program to use analytics to factor in weather patterns, etc.

Once a profile is established, Hohm offers a set of recommendations to help you trim consumption, anything from replacing your hot water heater to changing out windows, doors, or insulation. By using Microsoft’s Bing search engine, you also can access information on contractors in your area who can help you with those improvements or repairs.

One problem: Without the “smart” meter, Hohm is only as good as the information you plug into it. When I entered my usage for the period between Dec. 21 and Jan. 21, for instance, the program distributed it evenly over those days. I’m pretty sure more of that usage came between Dec. 21 and Jan. 1, when Christmas tree lights were burning and people were coming and going.

Microsoft emphasizes that Hohm will get better as more people use it and the analytics become more refined. At the moment, Hohm has some good information and fun bells and whistles, but news you can use — “What time of day is my peak usage? How do things change when the kids are home?” – still requires more on the hardware end.

Google's Powermeter is designed to work with "smart" meters. Photo: Green Right Now

Google's Powermeter is designed to work with "smart" meters. Photo: Green Right Now

Google PowerMeter: This is a Web application for monitoring home energy use that requires an advanced or “smart” meter. The company has partnered with utilities and smart meter manufacturers to offer an energy-tracking dashboard through the meter.

Another option: The Energy Detective, a home-monitoring device from Energy, Inc. Eventually, Google plans to add features, including providing consumers with information to help ratchet down power use during peak times to get cheaper rates.

Currently, PowerMeter delivers more detailed and specific information than Hohm. The downside: You either need a smart meter, or you’ll need to spend some cash on The Energy Detective (TED) to make that connection.

A bit later to the game,  Apple has applied for a pair of patents to monitor how power is supplied to electronics such as computers and iPods.

One is called “Intelligent Power Monitoring” and describes a system that would allow consumers to reduce energy use by providing better tools to control how connected devices are powered. For instance, users could learn when to schedule charging to take advantage of off-peak rates or how to put devices in hibernate mode.

The other patent application – “Intelligent Power-enabled Communications Port” – suggests a system that could distribute an efficient amount of power to a range of electronics. The idea calls for using the wiring of buildings to run direct current devices without using AC to DC adapters. The port also would be able to deliver and store data over home wires.

Intel, meanwhile, has launched a Web site supporting its Intelligent Home Energy Management Proof of Concept. A touch screen device allows people to record video messages or (through third-party applications) track packages or access online yellow pages. The energy component will help families control and reduce energy use.

As the Pike report suggests, the list of contenders expands regularly. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, General Electric and Whirlpool unveiled plans to work with display maker OpenPeak to monitor energy cost and control over appliances.

How will all this information be gathered? That, too, is an issue with more than one potential solution. Many companies anticipate using wireless home networks to allow appliances, a central console, and smart meters to communicate. Another alternative is to use smart plugs, electrical outlets that will allow for energy management without the presence of a smart meter.

Bottom line: Interest is growing, big players are charging in, and there are plenty of strategies for cornering the home energy management market. For consumers looking to save money and be a little more green, competition figures to be a good thing.

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