OPower looks to add human touch to smart grid

Your neighbors and lots of data crunching can help you cut home energy bills, says start-up, which is releasing software for smart-grid programs that nudge consumers toward efficiency.

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
3 min read

OPower's task in the world is to make boring energy information interesting.

The Arlington, Va.-based start-up has developed a software system that analyzes years of utility data and provides recommendations to consumers on how to shave their bills. Next month, utility ComEd will install an updated version of the system to about 120,000 customers who are receiving smart meters.

There are dozens of companies vying for a piece of business in home energy efficiency and the smart grid. Although not totally unique, OPower's approach stands out in that it combines analytical software with expertise in behavioral science. The company is best known for its printed monthly reports which compare one household's bills to that of their neighbors as a way of motivating people to act.

If connected to a smart grid, the OPower software can provide detailed information on energy usage and then generate recommendations on how to reduce specific items, such as air conditioning load.

As utilities roll out smart-grid projects in the U.S., there's growing recognition that consumers aren't always being equipped with the right tools to manage their home energy, which is one of the ideas behind the smart grid. Instead, much of the effort and discussion has been on installing smart meters and providing consumers with more data, either a real-time display of usage or historical reports.

OPower, started in 2007, is trying to carve out a business providing software that translates utility data in a way that consumers can use to improve energy efficiency. The software can work with or without smart meters but smart meters can segment electricity by usage (air conditioning, heating, etc.) and generate more usage data to analyze, said Ogi Kavazovic, senior director of marketing and strategy.

"Most companies in this space will take data and feed it back to consumers, in real time if they can. This is raw data. We found at ComEd that people just don't engage with it," said Kavazovic. "People want to know two things: how am I doing and what can I do about it."

The company's software has been enhanced to let people look at their electricity usage and then generate actions to improve home efficiency with an energy plan. For example, the software analyzes air conditioning load, compares it to neighbors, and then asks one or two questions of the person. From there, it can generate a recommendation to clean the filter or hire a contractor to tune it. The information can also now be shown on in-home energy displays, small dedicated energy monitors designed to make consumers more aware of energy use and promote conservation.

In about two years of delivering paper reports to Sacramento Municipal Utility District, OPower's energy efficiency reports have been relatively successful, with an average energy savings of about 2.5 percent (some people increased energy usage.)

Kavazovic said that bringing information to consumers through different means--dedicated energy displays, Web portals, cell phones' text messages, and paper reports--is the only way that efficiency can take hold at large scale.

"If you rely on portals and in-home displays to engage with customers vis-a-vis the smart grid, you're going to get at best 35 percent of them," he said. "So 65 percent will be unengaged and not know about the smart grid in the next 10 years. That's a huge problem."