People Power: A Home Energy Tracker in Transition

Just what is People Power’s plan to bring its would-be energy-saving technology to the masses? The Palo Alto, Calif.-based home energy startup has a leader with a good track record — Gene Wang, the entrepreneur behind Bitfone — and buzz behind its open source-based system. But it’s also playing in an overcrowded market that will take years to mature. With only about $3.6 million raised to date, what’s People Power’s smartest next move?

Last Tuesday, People Power launched its Energy Services Platform (ESP). The cloud-based service, to be available next year, will control the energy use of devices in offices as well as in homes, and connect them via ZigBee and Wi-Fi as well as via People Power’s Open Source Home Area Network (OSHAN) technology. And, while People Power once planned to develop its own products, Wang, in an interview, made it clear that the company now considers its customers to be manufacturers of lights, thermostats, office equipment, home appliances and other energy-aware equipment.

People Power’s new list of active partners — Texas Instruments, D-Link, Ricoh, Energy Inc., Esprida and Stanford University — may also help. And making the switch from an in-house home energy management platform to one that links many different end user technologies could just pay off, both for People Power and for other likely contenders to the throne of energy app for the masses (Google PowerMeter, Microsoft Hohm, Belkin, Intel, to name a few). That is, as long as they mind few key steps:

1) Embed your Tech in Partners’ Products: When populating the world’s buildings with energy-aware devices is your goal, make friends with the manufacturers of all those devices. The function of saving energy will have to take all different kinds of forms in the home. While utilities will need to give their poorest and least tech-savvy customers some kind of home energy option, like a simple dashboard with pre-set peak power saving commands, well-heeled homeowners may turn to iPads and self-installed home area networks to fine-tune their usage. Why try to make them all when you can simply give them a platform to ride on? That’s a more cost-effective software approach better-suited to startups.

2) Look to the Office as Well as the Home: Home energy management will face a long road to adoption, as will smart appliances, given the low savings and uncertain interest from consumers. But businesses have more incentive to watch their power bills — and office equipment makers may want to embed energy-watching technology into their products to help them. People Power’s partnership with Ricoh could be a model for a branded platform — think of printers and copiers that turn themselves off to save air conditioning power, or postpone jobs until after a utility power price peak has passed. Daja Phillips, executive vice president of Ricoh Innovations, said the company is testing People Power’s platform to control a number of devices, though she didn’t give more specifics.

3) Find the Missing Link in the Platform: A platform to link disparate devices, utilities and end customers is a tempting goal, but challenging at an enterprise level. People Power isn’t alone in pitching a cloud-based platform for the job — U.K. company Intamac has one, and some new demand response offerings seem to be aimed at enterprise platform status. General Electric has home energy management plans that include smart appliances, solar panels, batteries and networks — might it look to a startup for the platform to manage it all?

4) When in Doubt, Make the Platform Agnostic: People Power’s first commercially available product was a $150 developers kit for what it calls its Sensor Ultra Radio Frequency (SuRF) wireless communications technology. Wang likes this 900-megahertz technology because it’s long-range, low power and real-time, and is working with the IEEE 802.15.4g effort on its behalf. Still, by interoperating with ZigBee and Wi-Fi-enabled devices, People Power is acknowledging that Wi-Fi and ZigBee are likely to dominate the field.

Question of the week

Will People Power’s shift to energy management platform provider keep its energy management hopes alive?