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Microsoft tries plan B with Hohm energy app

Because consumers and utilities have not taken up its Hohm energy-monitoring application as hoped, Microsoft is increasing focus on electric-vehicle charging.

LAGUNA NIGUEL, Calif.--Disappointed with the uptake of its Hohm Web application for home energy efficiency, Microsoft is shifting the product focus to emphasize electric-vehicle charging, according to a company executive.

Microsoft launched Hohm almost two years ago as a free application for consumers to monitor energy use and get tips on how to improve efficiency. It has signed on fewer than 10 utilities which use Hohm to provide consumers with electricity data online and it has partnered to provide electricity monitoring using a home's Wi-Fi connection.

But despite those efforts, the reception from utilities and consumers has not been what Microsoft had hoped originally, Rob Bernard, Microsoft's chief environmental strategist, said yesterday at the Fortune Brainstorm Green conference here. In response, Microsoft is increasing the focus of Hohm on a partnership with Ford to manage electric-vehicle charging at home, he said.

"We aren't seeing the level of traction in home monitoring than we had hoped for so we're increasing our focus on EVs and making them more connected," Bernard said, adding that Microsoft intends to learn from its experience so far.

Using Hohm, Ford electric-vehicle drivers will be able to manage what Microsoft calls "value-based charging," or charging electric cars to take advantage of cheaper, off-peak rates or rates established by utilities to promote electric vehicles. The application is expected to be available in the fall and work with Ford's all-electric Focus which will be released this year.

Microsoft will continue to offer Hohm to consumers and utilities, but Bernard said that consumer efficiency software has some tough structural and behavioral barriers to overcome. The application is designed around a questionnaire which gives people a profile of their home energy usage and suggests efficiency measures. But getting people to use the tool in large numbers is still a challenge even though it promises to save consumers money.

On the utility side, there isn't always a motivation for utilities to offer this sort of product, Bernard said. In some states, regulations give utilities incentive to use energy more efficiently but there are large parts of the country where utilities earn more money by selling more kilowatt-hours.

Google PowerMeter?
Microsoft's route with Hohm underscores the challenges in cracking into the home efficiency area. There are dozens of smart-grid consumer companies which give consumers regular feedback on energy use and tools to manage how power is consumed or varying tariffs. These products are often being offered through utility-led smart-grid trials in relatively small numbers.

Google is another company which made waves in the smart-grid area when it introduced PowerMeter, which is also a Web application for monitoring electricity., Google's philanthropy arm, intends to keep offering and developing the product as originally planned, said Google's green energy czar Bill Weihl today.

At the same time, he said Google has recognized that it will take a long time for the product to take hold outside of highly dedicated, energy-conscious consumers. It, too, has shifted to involve policymakers around questions of data ownership and is seeking to partner with more hardware companies which can collect electricity meter data and make it available through PowerMeter.

"We're not going to see the rapid hockey-stick growth that we saw with search or mail, because it's not just an Internet software product. It's a complicated ecosystem," he said.

Among the issues in getting these products to market is cheap hardware for gathering meter data and getting regulations in place which give consumers access to their energy usage data, he said. Anecdotally, people can save about 10 percent on electricity bills, partly through greater visibility to how much power they use, he said.

"We're going to see a lot of experimentation in the home smart-grid, smart-appliance and energy-monitoring area. But it's going to take time for a few things to settle out and get to a solution for the average consumer." Weihl said, adding that the number of companies offering in this area is "probably not sustainable."

Related links
• Microsoft dials Hohm to cut home energy use
• Microsoft Hohm connects to home power monitor
• Ford taps Microsoft Hohm for electric-car charging