The Evolution of Home Energy Management

Tendril Networks announced last week that the second half of 2011 would finally see some of the startup’s dozens of utility pilots blossom into full-scale commercial deployments numbering in the millions of homes. But where does Tendril’s classic model of in-home devices linked to smart meters fit into today’s brave new world of home energy management?

In my latest column at GigaOm Pro (subscription required), I get into some of the comparisons to be made between Tendril and models like the light-touch, dashboard-free model that OPower has been riding to much success, as well as the tech-rich, home comfort-based systems from the likes of Control4.

The three differ in how much they rely on in-home technology: OPower doesn’t, while Tendril and Control4 do. Control4 and Tendril also differ in how deeply they want to embed the technology in the home and also how important the consumer will be — Tendril has a utility-centric model.

These aren’t the only three startups competing to win millions of homeowners over to a new energy-aware and proactive way of life. Companies like EnergyHub, Onzo, eMeter and Digi Internnational are hooking up in-home energy devices for utilities via smart meters or other connections. In the meantime, Startups like iControl, AlertMe, OpenPeak and Consert are delivering energy awareness to homeowners via other systems like home security and automation or home broadband service.

Startups aren’t the only ones with skin in this overcrowded game, however. HP (s HP), Intel (s INTC), Cisco (s CSCO), General Electric (s GE), Schneider Electric, Honeywell (s HON), Belkin, Verizon (s VZ) are some of the corporate giants with home energy management devices in the field and projects underway. Google (s GOOG) and Microsoft (s MSFT) have their home energy Web services, both with lots of startup device makers as partners.

All are grappling with just how to approach a market that hasn’t yet proven it can yield much in the way of revenues. Energy is still a small and mostly unnoticed part of most household expenses, and appealing to people’s consciences to save it remains a matter of picking eager customers from a largely indifferent crowd. Sociology and technology are being forced to find new ways to integrate intelligently — and cheaply — to crack this market.

Tendril’s deep utility experience may play an important role in its future. Utilities need technology cheap enough to justify deploying en-masse. Lower-income or elderly customers who can’t afford or aren’t interested in a high-end technology platform are a particular concern, since they have vocal and well-connected representation in the hearing rooms of state utility regulators. Companies that can cover this need for utilities may have an advantage.