Count the Ways to Connect Consumers to the Smart Grid

Smart meters have been undergoing a bit of a consumer backlash lately — and that could open the door for alternative ways to bring energy data to homeowners. Certainly the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the federal entity setting smart grid standards, seems to want to look for ways outside the smart meter to bring consumers and the smart grid closer together.

NIST is launching a new blog to open an industry dialogue around the “customer interface to the Smart Grid.” According to an opening post by George Arnold, NIST’s national coordinator for smart grid interoperability, one major question is whether the smart meter should be the primary gateway for home energy data, or whether the smart grid industry should be looking at a separate energy gateway for some or all of the home energy data that’s out there. Arnold dubs this the “Energy Services Interface,” but doesn’t get into more detail — though he does note that he’s interested in learning of “alternative architectures involving real-time (or near-real-time) electricity usage and price data” that could fit the bill.

Utilities are promising that the tens of millions of two-way communicating smart meters they’re installing across the country will eventually link up to home energy management systems, and the dozens of startups and corporate giants working on home energy interfaces are busy testing out these capabilities in pilot projects. But beyond those pilots, utilities aren’t turning on their smart meter-home communications just yet in any widespread way.

That slow pace is starting to get some pushback from regulators. California regulators have asked the state’s big investor-owned utilities to give all smart meter-enabled customers energy data by the end of 2010, and follow up with “near real-time” data by the end of 2011 — a timeline that could be challenging to meet. Questions of which standards will prevail in the so-called “home area network” field, as well as questions of smart meter data privacy and security, need to be solved to push these systems into the mainstream.

Of course, utilities are already transmitting data from smart meters back to their central offices in 15-minute to hourly increments, and that can be sent back to homeowners via Web interfaces or other means. But that data is being processed and delivered back to homeowners a day or more after the energy was actually consumed — useful for spotting wasteful behavior patterns, perhaps, but not for giving homeowners the real-time ability to spot and avert wasteful usage as it’s happening.

There are other ways to do that. Google’s PowerMeter energy interface is working with utilities and smart meter maker Itron, but is also partnering with in-home energy devices from Energy Inc. and AlertMe, which can be purchased and installed by homeowners. High-end home automation system maker Control4 makes a cheaper energy-specific product, available both through utilities and direct-to-consumer channels.

The problem with leaving the purchase of home energy tools to consumers, is cost — Energy Inc’s the Energy Detective costs about $200, while surveys indicate that most consumers are willing to pay little more than $50 or so to watch their energy use, if they’re willing to spend anything at all. There are less expensive ways for homeowners to energy-watch on their own dime — Blue Line Innovations has come out with its $99 PowerCost Monitor to beam signals from non-smart electricity meters into a home display unit, and is now selling it at Fry’s Electronics after years of selling through utilities. This year’s Consumer Electronics Show featured several new partnerships aimed at the consumer energy management market, including a General Electric partnership with digital home display maker OpenPeak. (For more on “Home Energy Management: Consumer Attitudes and Preferences,” check out GigaOM Pro).

One way to make energy management more affordable is to fold it into other home offerings, like smart appliances, home broadband services or home security systems. GE’s promised line of smart appliances — fridges, ovens and other household devices that can power down to meet homeowner or utility energy-saving needs — will be linked up with GE home energy management software and interface due sometime this year. Kleiner Perkins-backed startup iControl is working with broadband providers and home security firms to supply an energy management tool that could be bundled into the monthly fees that homeowners pay for those services. (See Broadband Service Providers Are About to Ride the Home Energy Wave, GigaOM Pro).

OpenPeak, beyond its GE partnership, is already supplying its home displays to telcos such as Verizon (s VZN) and Telefonica subsidiary O2, and OpenPeak CEO Dan Gittelman has hinted at a telco-linked energy monitoring offering to come (see Greentech Media). But, in a nod to the multiple pathways to home energy management, OpenPeak is also working with smart meter maker Itron.

In the meantime, emerging models for home energy management could add new options to the already bewildering array. Intel Labs has a concept gadget that could plug into a household outlet and monitor individual appliances’ energy use via their voltage signatures, and Apple has a patent for a home energy interface using Homeplug power line communications to carry energy data.

The NIST blog, hosted with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, will be open to all interested participants through Friday, March 12, with the discussion to be framed around three central questions: Architectural questions from Feb. 23 to March 1; questions concerning data access and ownership from March 2 to March 7, and questions on data communications standards for consumer appliances and other smart grid-enabled devices from March 8 to March 12. To participate, check out NIST’s smart grid collaboration site, or send emails to [email protected].

Image courtesy of numstead’s photostream Flickr Creative Commons.