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?