An ecosystem of platforms and APIs is emerging to help developers create home energy management applications and gadgets. It’s still early days, but in the last couple of weeks Microsoft quietly released its software developer’s kit to device partners to create the first gadgets that can be integrated with Hohm, its online energy tool. Microsoft tells us that this summer it will open up the Hohm platform even further. Google also told us today that it has finally released the API for its web energy tool, PowerMeter.
While smaller home energy management startups like Tendril have been pushing their APIs and platforms for months as a way to grow and gain partnerships, these recent movements by the Internet giants to open up the development platforms around home energy data are important steps to creating a developer community around energy information and ultimately to deliver much-needed innovation.
But developing applications for tools and gadgets that take energy information from consumers, utilities and other databases and use it in ways that encourage consumers to curb their energy consumption is a very different task than, say, developing applications around location information or media consumption.
What do developers need to keep in mind when working with these new energy platforms and APIs?
Getting the Energy Data: Be Patient & Creative
If you want to build an energy application, your first question is, how do you collect the energy data you need to input it into your application? You can either get a customer’s energy data automatically from the device in the home, you can solicit data manually from the consumer, or you can get energy info from the utility.
If you’re thinking about getting it directly from utilities, get ready to wait. Both PowerMeter and Hohm have only a handful of the thousands of utilities in the U.S. signed up as partners — and that’s after more than a year of effort from two massive web companies.
More likely, developers building tools using Hohm and PowerMeter’s APIs will be collecting the energy information straight from the consumers. Home energy management gadgets don’t need to use utility-validated energy information, and Troy Batterberry, Microsoft’s product unit manager of its Energy Management & Home Automation division, emphasized to us that opening up Hohm was meant to encourage the development of applications around real-time energy data that can be accessed within the home.
Developers will have to be creative and smart when it comes to working with users to provide energy data to the system, as well. Average consumers are not yet looking for products to help them conserve energy in their homes, and they won’t be willing to jump through hoops (like filling out forms about their energy use and home characteristics) to get results. As John Steinberg, CEO of EcoFactor, explained at our Smart Grid Bunker event, home energy management has to be automatic, seamless and easy. Even requiring manual opt-in for gadgets and web systems to connect with PowerMeter could prove a barrier for mainstream households.
The third way to pull in energy-related information to an application is by adding in already known and publicly-available information, like weather, real estate and location data. EcoFactor and Hohm are also using widely-available public data sets to make their applications more relevant and useful.
But expect the access to energy data to change over the coming year. The California Public Utilities Commission said in December that California’s large investor-owned utilities (Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric) have until the end of 2010 to give their customers and approved third parties — which could include Google, Microsoft or other makers of energy data portals — access to the smart meter data collected in utilities’ back office servers. By the end of 2011, the CPUC wants the utilities to provide customers and approved third parties with “near real-time” data from smart meters. Both Rajagopalan and Batterberry say they’re eagerly looking forward to this.
Security and Privacy
One of the most important aspects for developers to keep in mind when creating home energy management tools is the strict attention to privacy and security that will be needed. Batterberry compared the level of security and privacy needed for energy applications to that of healthcare or financial data. “Security and privacy are one of the most important pieces of this development process,” said Batterberry, “But the problems and process to ensure security and privacy are not insurmountable.”
To allay customer’s fears about sharing and managing their energy use information with Hohm, Microsoft says it uses the robust security standards familiar to those running secure web site today — SSL protocol, security tokens and data encryption. Device partners will be required to do the same, as well. Having such measures in place also makes it easier to communicate with customers. Batterberry notes that giving consumers “insight and control into how Microsoft and its partners store, send, and share their information” will be important to easing the technology’s adoption.
Google, which has recently faced Google Buzz-induced privacy criticisms, notes that it has taken this issue seriously. Rajagopalan said that Google went to great lengths — and added a couple months to the process of opening up the PowerMeter API — to lay out processes and steps to ensure privacy and security. Specifically, PowerMeter’s team created the API so that devices that connect with it need to go through a layer of authentication that requires the end user to opt-in. “Over the last six months we’ve made the security and privacy steps a lot more robust,” said Rajagopalan.
Early Days But Look to Internet
Batterberry and Rajagopalan both remind developers to keep in mind that some of the standards around home energy data are still moving targets. As George Arnold, the director of the smart grid standards process at the National Institutes of Standards and Technology (NIST), told us recently, there are “half a dozen” standards for communicating within the home, including wireless and powerline, and it’s still unclear which standards some of the big players will choose, like the manufacturers of the smart appliances. (Read more: “Networking the Smart Grid: Wireless and Fixed Communications from the WAN to the HAN“)
Developers can bet on some of the basics, however. Nearly all home energy devices likely will have ZigBee chips incorporated. The APIs of Hohm and PowerMeter are all written in clear Internet languages like XML, so the average web developer will have little problems interpreting the information. And, because it’s Internet giants and early-adopter web startups opening up their energy information platforms to the developer community, the home energy innovation ecosystem will likely be dominated by companies with backgrounds in the Internet.
At the end of the day, companies are opening up their energy platforms to bring in more developers to create innovative applications that could “make it big.” As Apple and Google both know well, the developer community can drive a lot more innovation than a company can in house. That’s exactly what the home energy management industry needs, and after years of gaining little or no traction within the regulated and slow-moving utility industry, opening up the APIs of these home energy management platforms could be the crucial piece that finally gets consumers to adopt energy information tools.