Smart grid needs a dose of social networking

Start-up GroundedPower combines home energy monitoring with info-sharing Web tools, just as smart-grid backers grapple with how to engage consumers.

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

If people can quit smoking and lose weight, then surely then can save energy at home, says GroundedPower.

The Newton, Mass.-based start-up is one of dozens of smart-grid companies working in home energy efficiency, but it's one of the few whose founders are versed in psychology and behavioral science. That's one reason GroundedPower has chosen to focus on people as much as technology.

GroundedPower's Web-based application combines home electricity monitoring with tools to make a home energy efficiency plan and get recommendations from others. It also makes a very simple hardware device called "Glance" to signal consumers if they are meeting their goals.

GroundedPower's energy efficiency system combines electricity monitoring with social networking tools. GroundedPower

Many companies have developed in-home energy displays, which are sometimes distributed as part of utility smart-grid programs, to give people a real-time view of their electricity consumption. Displays or Web dashboards can help consumers find places where they are wasting energy or make changes to be more efficient, studies have shown.

But there's a growing concern that smart-grid programs, as they are conceived now, won't be enough to getutility customers actively engaged in managing home energy. As one indicator, the Smart Grid Consumer Coalition was founded last month to study ways consumers can learn about the benefits of a modernized power grid.

Earlier this week, GroundedPower submitted comments to the California Public Utilities Commission, which is considering requirements for upcoming smart-grid programs. The crux of GroundedPower's comments is that people are motivated by more than utility prices, which is primarily how regulators are seeking to encourage people to conserve and use electricity at off-peak times.

"When you come into this, you think that it's all about money but it's not," said David Rosi, the senior vice president of marketing, sales, and business development at GroundedPower. "Many people are focused on the environment, competition, peer comparisons, learning, rewards--you need to take many things into consideration."

The social-networking aspects of GroundedPower's application, drawn from one of the founders' experience with a smoking cessation Web site, are geared at getting recommendations and sharing tips with people in similar situations, explained Rosi. For example, a person could commit to changing how they wash clothes and share ideas or compete with others on an overall reduction.

Red light, green light
The company, which raised a round of funding from angel investors late last year, did a trial program in Cape Cod last year and is now doing trials through municipal utilities in the Boston area, which will touch about 400 people altogether.

The Glance device only shows green, orange, and red to indicate whether a person is meeting home energy efficiency goals. GroundedPower

Rather than only display historical energy data, GroundedPower's Web application lets people walk through an online audit and set goals that they commit to. After that, they can monitor their progress either through the Web application or other device, such as a smart phone. The small Glance device only shows green, orange, or red--no consumption information--to indicate whether people are on plan or need to make changes.

In its initial test in Cape Cod with about 100 people, it found that people logged in between two and a half and three times a week, although they tended to use it more in the summer when electricity bills were higher, said Rosi. An audit found that the energy savings was 10 percent compared to a prior year's bills, he said.

The system can work with other smart-grid devices, such as smart meters or two-way thermostats that let people remotely control their appliances. But the reductions in the first trial were entirely based on behavior changes, Rosi said. Electricity usage data is collected from the meters that let utilities get drive-by readings or with dedicated gateway devices.

There are other companies that also emphasize recommendations to utility customers. OPower creates personalized reports, which give people an idea of how efficient their homes are compared to people in similar situations. There are also Web-based applications, such as Microsoft Hohm, which allow people to create a home efficiency plan and generate recommendations.

As utilities get deeper in smart-grid programs, Rosi expects more utilities to focus on improving consumer engagement. "Once (a customer) has set up a plan, gone online to get recommendations and committed to a plan, then you start to look at things differently," he said.