With Presence app, People Power pulls a pivot

Energy management startup People Power is back with a new remote monitoring app designed to reuse old iOS devices as security cameras. It’s a nice app and People Power’s gateway drug to the internet of things.

People Power tries to grab homeowners’ energy interest

Can People Power get homeowners interested in managing their energy use? Today the startup, which has a cloud-based home energy platform, launched new products and partnerships, along with a pilot project in its hometown of Palo Alto, Calif., that could test the business viability of putting energy controls in homeowners’ hands.

Various parts of People Power’s attempts at making home energy management (HEM) easy, fun and cost-effective are also being tried by other startups to overcome the lack of engagement and functionality that has hurt less-involved platforms. But HEM technology needs more functionality and automation to succeed, as Google’s decision to kill its PowerMeter home energy platform last week indicates. Here’s how People Power is trying to fix that problem:

Mobile device capability. People Power has a pretty effective customer interface platform, with rich detail and guidelines to help homeowners check their progress against their own goals and neighbors’ performances. Tuesday’s launch adds new Android and iPhone applications that bring that interface to mobile devices, a good way to keep homeowners more connected to it. Many HEM vendors, including Tendril, AlertMe and Control4, plan to offer mobile connectivity, but People Power is among the first to make it available.

Power control, not just visibility. One of Google PowerMeter’s drawbacks was its lack of energy controls, a problem People Power wants to solve. First, it’s working with Radio Thermostat Co. of America’s Wi-Fi thermostats to manage heating and air-conditioning. That’s not unique: Home heating and cooling are a major part of peak power demand, a big concern for utilities, and many HEM vendors, such as Energate and EcoFactor, specialize in thermostats.

But air-conditioning only accounts for about one-sixth of average household power use, while plugged-in appliances make up nearly half. To tackle those, People Power has wireless power strips and plug-in hubs to turn appliances on and off via remote control or schedules. Of course, many HEM vendors, such as Belkin and GreenWave Reality, offer “smart” power strips or wall plugs. Getting people to use them is where People Power’s interface will be put to the test.

Power meter and home circuit monitoring. To avoid relying on smart meters for energy data, People Power will be working with Blue Line Innovations’ device to translate old-fashioned electromechanical meter data into digital signals, Energy Inc.’s The Energy Detective (TED) home power monitoring system and Obvius’ commercial building sub-metering systems. That’s not an automatic route to success: Google PowerMeter’s TED partnership didn’t save it. Likewise, Blue Line partnered with Microsoft’s Hohm residential energy management platform, but that didn’t stop Hohm from ditching home energy monitoring to focus on electric vehicle charging. At $200 and up, those devices are too expensive for most homeowners — a problem People Power will have to confront as well, and one that it hasn’t addressed in a way that differentiates it from the competition.

Broadband to replace smart meters? What People Power’s partnerships with Blue Line and TED do offer, however, is a way for Palo Alto’s municipal utility to collect residential customers’ energy data without smart meters. That could put People Power’s platform in a central role in managing a host of smart home utility capabilities, like communicating different power rates to customers or changing thermostat settings to shave peak power use.

There’s a catch to that plan, however: The communications network. Palo Alto’s city utility owns a fiber optic network to link People Power–enabled homes to the startup’s cloud-based service, but most utilities can’t afford fiber. That means that startups like EcoFactor, iControl and now People Power that are trying to ride broadband into home energy management may have to limit themselves to more affluent customers and communities. That’s a good place to find early adopters, but not necessarily a route to mass-market success. But then again, with industry observers in agreement that the HEM market will take years to develop, perhaps targeting early adopters is the way for startups to position themselves for the mass markets to come.

Question of the week

Will People Power’s home energy management features take off with affluent, tech-savvy early adopters in Palo Alto?

Is Privacy the Achilles Heel of Cloud-Based Home Energy Management?

The cloud could make home energy management both cheap and powerful, but could privacy concerns nip that potential in the bud? Storing home energy data in the cloud means less up-front investment in microprocessors and memory for in-home devices — in other words, cheaper systems, which is what homeowners want. But that means sending private data — when people are home or on vacation, how much TV they watch and what appliances they buy — to far-off servers and data centers for processing. That may well ignite customer fears over privacy, which could lead to backlash, unless privacy is built in from the ground up.

That’s one conclusion I reached after talking last week to Intel’s Shahram Mehraban, who is working on the chip giant’s Home Energy Dashboard product. Among his comments, Mehraban said the dashboard will be powerful enough to accomplish a host of analytic and data-crunching tasks on its own — primarily to avoid complications of letting that data out of homeowners’ control.

The list of in-device tasks — things like differentiating appliances by using electrical signatures from household wiring, or devising “home” and “away” routines without customer input — aren’t unique to Intel. Other home energy management companies are working on them, and some of their in-home offerings are in the $100 to $200 range. Intel has tended to set $200 as a minimum for its system, and adding features could boost that price up even higher.

The cheapness imperative has led many startups to avoid the extra costs involved in giving their home dashboards the beefed-up computing power and memory to do complicated tasks on their own, like a computer would. Instead, startups like People Power, AlertMe, EcoFactor, Incenergy, Intamac and others are turning to cloud-based remote platforms to manage more complex, data-intensive tasks. But that means a new level of complication in protecting private data. Similar complications could arise for home energy platforms from IT giants like Google’s PowerMeter and Microsoft’s Hohm. After all, they don’t have perfect track records in dealing with customer data privacy.

The issues surrounding homeowner energy data privacy are as political — or in some cases, as psychological — as they are technical. For example, state utility commissions don’t have legal authority over third-party users of customer energy data. The only way they can enforce any privacy rules they come up with would be to force utilities to set up their own policing systems, which opens them up to costs and responsibilities they don’t want.

At the same time, it’s hard to predict how customers will react to the idea of new data being given out to third parties — even if, as is almost universally the case today, that’s happening only after customers expressly give their permission. Given the continuing backlash over smart meters, there’s probably good reason for utilities to be on their toes.

Intel isn’t the only one making moves to protect itself from future limitations on home energy data. General Electric’s Nucleus home energy hub, for example, has enough memory to store three years of energy data on its own, at a price of $149 to $199 for it, although that doesn’t include the cost of devices to interact with it.

Utility customer data privacy is emerging as a key concern for all kinds of third-party management of utility data. Examples include eMeter’s recent collaboration with Verizon to host meter data management software on the cloud, or SmartSynch’s partnership with PayGo to host prepay meter functionality, or Digi International’s cloud-based M2M smart grid networking system. Adding a lot of new privacy rules to how these new IT systems are run could add costs and complications — but privacy advocates say that preventing privacy breaches are worth the extra cost.

Question of the week

Will privacy concerns limit the adoption of cloud-based storage for home energy?

People Power: A Home Energy Tracker in Transition

People Power has made a lot of changes from its start as a would-be home energy management device maker. Now it’s got a platform that could work in homes and offices — an example of how it and other startups may need to change to survive?

People Power: Energy Tracker in Transition

Buzzy Silicon Valley home energy management startup People Power has opened its arms to an enterprise platform approach, one that may involve targeting the office even more aggressively than the home.

Verizon Taps Clearleap for Cloud-based VOD Content Delivery

Verizon has integrated Clearleap’s content management technology into its architecture to deliver cloud-based video with its video-on-demand architecture. Clearleap’s technology is being used to streamline production for FiOS 1 VOD content to provide hyper-local content such as news, sports, traffic and weather to its subscribers.

Cisco Launches Smart Grid Assault, Home Energy Gadget

Just last week we noted how Cisco had one official smart grid product on the market, which was basically hardened networking gear for utility substations. Yeah, well scratch that. On Tuesday morning Cisco launched its all-out smart grid assault, including a home energy management product.

Announcing Our Green:Net Launchpad 10 Winners

One of my favorite parts of last year’s Green:Net event was the launchpad section, where 10 companies that are using information technology to fight climate change launch themselves or new products. So I’m excited to announce this year’s 10 winners of the Green:Net2010 Launchpad.

Get Your Open Source Home Energy Developer Kit, Courtesy of People Power

There’s a growing number of options out there for aspiring home energy app makers — this morning wireless energy management startup People Power released its software developer’s kit called SuRF (Sensor Ultra Radio Frequency) for OSHAN (Open Source Home Area Network). Using SuRF (which you can buy for $150 here), developers can create applications that run over People Power’s open source-based wireless system, which can connect home fixtures and appliances and transmit energy data to a web-based portal.
The developer ecosystem for applications that will enable consumers to manage their home energy consumption is still very nascent. Mainstream consumers are largely not yet interested in buying home energy management gadgets, and Google’s (s GOOG) web energy tool PowerMeter has only signed up a couple thousand users by early February.
Read More about Get Your Open Source Home Energy Developer Kit, Courtesy of People Power