The broadband–home energy connection gets stronger

Who needs smart meters when you’ve got broadband? Last week saw two announcements that outlined the potential for delivering deep energy management capability via existing home broadband market channels, all while smart meters are still struggling to get up and running. If the broadband channel to home energy takes off — a very big if, to be sure — smart meter–dependent home energy startups could be left in the dust.

The first announcement came from startup EcoFactor. EcoFactor uses broadband to link smart thermostats to cloud-based software that crunches thousands of data points, such as weather reports, building permit info, demographic data and ongoing thermostat data. From there, EcoFactor adjusts thermostats to save energy while keeping temperatures in comfortable ranges; it could, for example, precool houses to let ACs idle through peak power periods.

EcoFactor said it has cut home energy use by 17 percent on average, or up to 36 percent in times of peak power demand, in pilot projects. Those kinds of results aren’t unique; smart meter–based home energy pilots have reported even better baseline and peak demand reductions. But the latter tend to rely on punishingly high peak power rates to encourage customers to cut peak power use. Whether utility regulators will allow many utilities to implement those peak prices on a mass scale remains to be seen. After all, doing so could hurt poor and elderly customers.

EcoFactor’s approach, which can save energy without human participation or the risk of skyrocketing bills, could be far more popular with homeowners and regulators alike. But its data-rich, cloud-based system will require broadband’s lower-bandwidth, less-frequent communications as opposed to those coming from smart meters.

Enter last week’s other significant home broadband–energy management connection: Comcast’s new Xfinity Home Security service. Sure, the launch was centered on security, not energy. But iControl, the startup Comcast has invested in and partnered with on its home security offering, can also manage home energy use. After all, security-minded capabilities like turning lights on and off can deliver direct energy-saving capabilities, while networked door locks or video cameras can help home automation systems turn off light and heat in unoccupied rooms and perform other energy-related functions. Broadband providers like Comcast and rival Verizon are busy offering home security add-ons to lure more customers, usually with some kind of basic smart thermostat–centered energy management freebie thrown in as well.

Why is all of this important? As far as I’m concerned, EcoFactor’s capabilities and Comcast’s big broadband–home security launch are the latest evidence that broadband may well beat smart meters in offering the most technologically advanced methods of managing home energy use. Even in markets where smart meters’ home connectivity capabilities have been turned on, such as in Texas, most home energy systems are using alternate broadband connections — including EcoFactor’s pilot with Texas utility Oncor.

One early example of how the broadband path may diverge from the smart meter path to market — and how that might negatively affect startups that make the wrong choice — has already emerged, in fact. While most smart meters in North America use ZigBee wireless technology for meter-to-home networking, both iControl and Verizon’s home broadband–security automation offerings are now using rival wireless system Z-Wave, a proprietary technology.

In the long run, broadband’s ability to support a deeper, more functional home energy management experience gives it a leg up against the smart meter–connected competition. Because broadband offers far faster and higher bandwidth digital connectivity than most smart meter systems, utilities might be able to get far more control and visibility into people’s homes using broadband than they ever hope to with smart meters. Sure, the smart meter is still needed to tell the utility and the homeowner just how much electricity the house is using at any point in time, but maybe its role as communications hub has been overrated. Maybe utilities could offer incentives to get people to install home broadband, then bring in energy management on broadband home entertainment’s or security’s coattails.

Question of the week

What are broadband’s advantages over smart meters when it comes to home energy management?