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October 06, 2009

Energy Management: Portals vs. Platforms



The market for residential energy management portals is certainly a hot topic in the industry this year, and literally dozens of companies have come out with energy portals just in the past six months.
 
Some notable examples of interesting market activity are the release of Hohm by Microsoft, PowerMeter by Google (News - Alert) and the acquisition of Greenbox by SilverSpring.
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I’m not surprised by SilverSpring’s acquisition of Greenbox at all – user experience for both consumers and technical staff is a main differentiating factor for smart meter vendors. I expect energy management portals to be a fertile ground for acquisitions or in-house product development by most meter vendors in the near future.
 
But going beyond the impressive user experience and functionality of interfaces such as Greenbox, which fill an immediate need for meter vendors, I’d like to take a closer look at what Microsoft (News - Alert) and Google are doing in this space and what this means for the future.
 
My first impressions of Hohm and PowerMeter were that demand side management and energy portals were, at most, mildly interesting. Surprisingly, since I usually prefer Google’s online services, I was actually much more impressed with Hohm’s integrated features and usability. It has a very easy to follow wizard and includes many integrated services such as a comprehensive energy management encyclopedia, targeted search, social and community integration and other nice elements. This tool was as pleasant to use as a demand-side energy portal can be. The first thought that came across my mind was that if it was integrated with the utilities CRM, it would make the perfect white label utility portal.
 
However, if this was where I believed the product development and value of PowerMeter and Hohm would stop, I wouldn’t be writing about either. The reason I’m writing about them is that all signs indicate that both teams have clear road maps in being more than just Web portals to rather being actual Web platforms or, just as Facebook (News - Alert) is a “social operating system” with a developer ecosystem, they will evolve to being the enablers of a whole slew of third-party services and applications in the energy management space.
 
Right now, both have partnered with utilities and interface directly with their MDMs over the Internet. They both have defined APIs that their utility partners use for providing consumer’s meter data. It’s not a far stretch seeing them extend these feeds, in turn, to third parties who can build innovative Smart Grid applications without having any access to the Smart Grid network itself, including the home network. This is where the value proposition of both these offerings changes significantly.
 
It appears to me that Google is actually slightly ahead on the platform side with the announcement of starting the process of partnering with third party device manufacturers like TED and service providers in enabling homes to send meter data to Google directly, bypassing the utility all together.
 
What sort of third-party applications could a cloud-based Web platform for energy management enable?
 
Even with basic demand side management and near time price signaling, it’s pretty easy to see third party portals that just focus on user experience, Web mash-ups which involve energy consumption data, portals which target various/specific screens in the home beyond monitors, such as TVs and mobile devices, integration of near real-time price alerts with e-mail, SMS, phone and unified communications in general. So even in the case of demand side management the ecosystem would be pretty impressive.
 
However, let’s look beyond demand side management and consider the next three to five years when the “prosumer” phase of automated demand response and widely available home control via HANs become a reality. If resources like PowerMeter and Hohm do, in fact, evolve to becoming central hubs and Web interfaces for third-party developers, then creating whole energy management and home control applications will become just a matter of developing Web applications. Why would anyone pay for an expensive home control solution when they can pick up a $60 gateway that speaks to their meter and home appliances on one side and then speaks via Microsoft, Google and other simple XML APIs to a cloud of applications on the other side? With this model, much like the iPhone (News - Alert) App Store, consumers could potentially pick and choose from thousands of applications, services and user interfaces for a nominal fee.
 
Something that current home automation and home energy management startups have to realize is that this won’t be good for them considering their current business models and product offerings. They will have to adapt and either work as application partners with a cloud based home OS or build and market a competitive solution.
 
I’m sure there are many other players positioning Web-based home energy management platforms in their portfolio and by no means is it remotely possible to predict what the market landscape will look like in the next few years. One thing I find interesting though is that there is a growing number of community and grassroots energy management, general conservation and Smart Object automation Web platforms, it will be interesting what will come out of the grassroots. A few examples are Pachube, AMEE and WATTZON. If you know of any other Web application that can go beyond being a service to being a platform for energy management, conservation and the “Web of Things” let me know. We will put up a directory.
 
One last point: Home energy management is going to be a major element of our Smart Grid Summit conference, to be collocated with ITEXPO East 2010, Jan. 20 to 22 in Miami. We hope to see a great crowd and have a great set of speakers lined up to explore where this market is headed. If you believe there is anything of value you can share at this conference, please make sure to fill out the call for papers form at the above link.
 
Learn more about Smart Grid technology at the Smart Grid Summit, an event collocated with ITEXPO East 2010, to be held Jan. 20 to 22 in Miami. This is the event you need to attend if you want to understand the role that IP communications technologies will play in how the Smart Grid evolves – not just for making utilities more efficient, but also for enabling the Smart Home and a new generation of communications innovations. Register now.

Shidan Gouran is co-founder of Intelligent Communications Partners (ICP), a strategic advisory consultancy focused on the emerging Smart Grid opportunity. To read more of his Smart Grid articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Michael Dinan
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