Future uncertain for in-home energy 'dashboards'

Green-tech firms have created a slew of gadgets to help people use energy more wisely at home. But consumer acceptance is another matter.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
4 min read

Smart-grid companies have introduced a parade of gadgets designed to help consumers manage their home energy use and boost efficiency. But it's still an open question as to how the transition from a monthly paper bill to richer energy information will happen.

This week's DistribuTech utility-industry conference brought still more home energy management systems into the market. In many cases, these are dedicated displays for a countertop or kitchen table that remind consumers how many kilowatts they are using or notify them when prices are moving into a more expensive peak-time bracket.

Schneider introduced its Wiser product set, which includes a wireless thermostat and a display, and Intel announced that Capgemini will use Intel's Home Energy Dashboard in its utility consulting practice. Energate introduced a smart thermostat that connects to a display and other appliances on a home network.

But even the companies producing these products--and the utilities offering the electricity service--know there's a steep hill to climb to gain consumer acceptance and realize big efficiency gains. Meanwhile, some say using technology to wring more efficiency from commercial buildings and transmission lines is arguably easier to achieve.

"There are a lot of green-focused consumers who will embrace this--we think that'll be a small market. The larger market will take years of education," said Mike Matthews, business development manager for residential energy efficiency at Schneider Electric Power Business. "A lot of displays just show energy information, but because they show this all the time, it's pretty easy to ignore as time goes on. We're trying to give a device the consumer can really engage with."

Home energy-saving technology (images)

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For the most part, consumers aren't used to tracking energy use beyond a monthly bill and making changes to behavior based on changing electricity prices. A glance at a display or Web portal could indicate that their power consumption is higher than normal and lead them to turn off a TV or game machine not in use.

A dashboard, or smart thermostat, could also be a gateway for a utility to notify consumers of a peak energy emergency and that higher rates are in effect. To save money, a consumer could change the thermostat setting or delay running the dishwasher. If it's a preprogrammed and connected device, the change could happen automatically.

Lagging regulations and prices
Demand response programs, largely run with commercial energy consumers, are being used effectively by grid operators during grid emergencies, notably hot summer days when generators are maxed out.

But time-of-use or variable rates, which are supposed to reflect the fluctuating prices of daily power markets, are still not widely used for consumer customers, according to the Edison Electric Institute. Without time-of-use rates, consumers don't have a financial incentive to shift their power consumption to off-peak times.

Cost, too, is an issue, even if energy management systems are supposed to save consumers money.

Cisco's relatively high-end Home Energy Controller will sell for about $500 during a trial with Ecotality's EV chargers, which is significantly less than early smart-grid programs, said Larry O'Connell, product line manager at Cisco. But a lot of this functionality could be integrated into an iPad or smart phone application or accessed from a PC and TV.

"Realistically, we know that costs have to come down for us to hit the mass market. Maybe the controller gets integrated into the home network. You could decouple the display from the network function," he said.

Utilities aren't necessarily the only way energy management will get to consumers. Cisco is expecting EV charging equipment could lead to sales of its whole system, which includes back-end software and cloud services. A number of home security companies are offering smart thermostats and energy monitoring as well, another example of how different approaches are being tested.

From ratepayer to consumer
Trials with dedicated dashboards are useful to see how consumers use the additional information and remote control of their home climate settings, participants say. But there is downward pressure on prices, which appears to be leading to simpler displays. GE at the Consumer Electronics Show said it is creating a cheaper in-home energy display for utilities later this year. Tendril told Earth2Tech that its Vision display, created by renowned design firm Ideo, will be discontinued because it's too expensive.

Instead of fancy hardware and smart meters, at least some smart-grid companies appear to be focusing more on consumer-friendly software. For example, Tendril's Energize Web application lets consumers create a home energy budget and interact with peers and efficiency experts.

Utility executives are acutely aware of the need to improve consumer engagement to make the grid more efficient. Demand-response provider Comverge last week published a survey of more than 100 utility executives who said that "consumer education and awareness" and "consumer buy-in" were the biggest barriers to smart-grid adoption.

At the same time, analysts say that better energy management in commercial buildings and putting sensors on the transmission line to improve efficiency is typically a much easier business case than residential systems. So why the rush into home energy management?

"When you have large numbers of residential customers, that makes it attractive to venture capital investors who are looking for something to scale," said Rick Nicholson, vice president of research at IDC Energy Insights. "It's also attractive to politicians--all those consumers are voters."