By Jonathan Spencer Jones

Consumer home energy applications are the new trend for 2010, with new products appearing with increasing frequency from companies ranging from established giants such as Google and Microsoft to new start-ups that are putting out apps for smart phones and other systems for home use. 

All about making available “content” (information) in an easy and intuitive way, the app is finding its way into every area of our digital world, from the iPhone to Facebook. And with the explosion of interest in the connected home, it is of little surprise that home automation and energy management are becoming a hot area for developers of these products. Moreover many of them are available on multiple platforms such as a display and/or web interface for in-home control as well as on a smart phone app for control on the move.

For example, Control4 has launched Mobile Navigator, initially for iPhones and now available for BlackBerry and Droid devices, which allows users to control lighting, temperature, security, music and video over a home Wi-Fi network with their smart phone. Other companies, such as eQ-3, Ecobee, Lutron and Tendril, offer similar products, while OnStar has unveiled an app for the Chevy Volt that allows users to remotely control various of the vehicle’s electrical functions, such as remotely scheduling charging schedules and even locking and unlocking the doors and sounding the hooter.

And for those who are interested, engineers at the University of Southampton recently developed an iPhone app, GridCarbon, which allows users to monitor the carbon intensity of the UK’s electricity grid.

PowerPlayer

PowerPlayer for iPhone – a real time energy feedback application developed in the Netherlands based on the European Smart Metering Alliance’s review of customer reaction to feedback (Photo Home Automation Europe)

UTILITY OR CONSUMER PROVIDES?
Home energy apps are mostly available for consumers to purchase off-the-shelf, but they are also being supplied by utilities to their customers, as the utilities look to leverage the energy savings off smart metering and the product developers look to utilities for product trial data, visibility and potential markets.

Here there are the stand-alone in-home displays and web-based products that display consumption information from companies such as Blue Line Innovations, EnergyHub, Onzo, and OpenPeak, and the ubiquitous mobile apps already mentioned, as well as the whole gamut of home energy management products, such as programmable thermostats.

The breadth of this market is illustrated by the recent entrance of appliance manufacturer Whirlpool, which has teamed with Direct Energy, Best Buy, Lennon and OpenPeak to launch a home energy manager prototype that integrates home appliances such as washers, dryers and air conditioning units and is slated to be able to save users up to 25%. And the latest company looking to weigh in is Apple, which in May 2009 filed patent applications for a smart home energy management dashboard system based on power line communication.

COMPETITION FOR CUSTOMERS
When it comes to competition for consumers, arguably the biggest market is for web-based products, because of their (almost) global reach.

One recent entrant in this field is OPOWER, which is working with Seattle City Light and Xcel Energy among other utilities, to provide home energy reports to their customers, evaluating the customers’ energy usage patterns against those of similar households in the same area and offering personalised energy efficiency tips.

But perhaps the biggest names in this arena are Google and Microsoft with their PowerMeter and Hohm products.

Google PowerMeter is a free electricity usage monitoring tool that provides the consumer with information on their home energy consumption, using data received from utility smart meters or in-home energy management devices. Google is now testing the tool with a number of utility partners, including JEA, San Diego Gas & Electric, TXU Energy, White River Valley Electric Cooperative and Wisconsin Public Service in the US, Toronto Hydro-Electric in Canada, first:utility and Glasgow EPB in the UK, Reliance Energy in India and Yellow Strom in Germany. Also the company is working with Itron and NISC, as well as with device developers AlertMe and Energy Inc.

Through these partnerships, effectively anyone in North America with the appropriate equipment is now able to access the PowerMeter.

While statistically significant data is yet to be compiled, there is anecdotal evidence of savings between 10-20%, comments Ed Lu, Google’s Advanced Projects program manager, who has championed the PowerMeter.

Microsoft Hohm is also a free online application that is aimed at enabling consumers to better understand their energy usage and to obtain personalised energy saving recommendations. For its part Microsoft is working with three utilities so far, Sacramento Municipal Utility District, Seattle City Light and Xcel Energy, as well as with Itron and Landis+Gyr as technology partners.

Similarly Hohm – currently in beta phase – is available so far to anyone in the US, but the aim is to make it available to consumers throughout the world, whether or not they have a smart meter. Simply by completing a short set of core questions about their home, a consumer can receive an estimate of the potential savings that are possible and recommendations on how to achieve those savings – and the more accurate the input data, i.e. the energy usage data, information on appliances, etc., the more accurate will be the energy saving estimates and recommendations.

Appliances, thermostats and electric vehicles are all expected to be incorporated into Hohm in the near future.