Start-up Tendril pursues 'TiVo of thermostats'

Tendril is designing a home energy system aimed at people who aren't tech-savvy or willing to work hard on energy 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

NEW YORK--Even with dozens of smart-grid trials starting this year, it's still an open question how engaged consumers will be in managing their home energy consumption.

Start-up Tendril Networks next week plans to unveil an in-home display system that's geared at consumers who aren't particularly tech-savvy or willing to spend a lot of effort on home efficiency. It's an attempt to give people simple tools for cutting energy consumption by 5 percent to 10 percent.

The primary unit is a touch-screen display called the Vision which was designed with design consultancy Ideo. Rather than provide a graph that shows real-time electricity consumption, the interface is built around a clock, explained Tendril CEO Adrian Tuck, who gave a presentation at the Jefferies Clean Tech Conference here on Wednesday.

People can program a thermostat using the clock and choose to participate in utility demand-response programs where electricity consumption is curbed during peak times. In the center of the clock's hands is a colored circle that grows to represent how much energy a home is using, he said.

"It's very, very simple and intuitive and designed to be nonthreatening for the 9 out of 10 people threatened by IT," Tuck said.

Tendril's Vision is a home energy management system designed for ease of use. Tendril

He said that many people don't program thermostats today but there's a "TiVo moment" coming in the industry where more people will actually use them--and save on their utility bills--once they are easier to use.

The device assumes that utilities offer time-of-day pricing, which is not the case in most of the U.S. People who do have time-of-day pricing could cut electricity use by about 10 percent using the system, Tuck said.

The Vision connects to a wireless thermostat and other Zigbee-enabled devices, such as smart plugs and appliances once they are available. The main console can communicate with a smart meter through Zigbee, although it can work without a smart meter through a dedicated communications gateway, Tuck said.

Tendril plans to show off a pre-production prototype of the Vision running its software next week at the DistribuTech utility conference. It hopes to start manufacturing the system later this year for installations next summer, Tuck said.

Avoiding backlash
There are dozens of companies developing home energy management systems, many of which are tied to utility smart-grid programs. But there's concern that this area of the smart grid is a bubble and that some companies will fail.

In addition, the business models for rolling out home energy management systems are still in their infancy. Tendril, for example, sells software to utilities to provide data to consumers on energy use and for demand-response programs. The projected savings from home efficiency justify the investments.

Tendril, like other home energy management companies, has an iPhone application for managing a home thermostat and, when available, the charge for the Nissan Leaf electric car. Martin LaMonica/CNET

Tendril projects that it will be cash-flow positive in two years, although the timing of smart-grid roll-outs can greatly affect the company's progress, Tuck said.

In a limited sample of early tests, Tendril customers have been able to cut consumption by 5 percent to 10 percent overall. Tuck said when they use the system to automatically control heating and cooling, reductions can be as much as 20 percent to 25 percent during peak times specifically, which are typically during the middle of the day and early evening.

As consumers adopt smart thermostats and networked appliances, there's the potential to cut energy use overall by 10 percent to 15 percent, he added.

Easy-to-use products are not only important to the business case for home energy management systems, but they also can help improve the image of the smart grid, which as suffered a backlash from consumers in California and Texas.

Utilities typically get the benefit of automated meter reading with two-way meters, but consumers don't immediately see benefits, Tuck said. "It's like a wireless company saying you have this great 4G technology. But we want you to start paying now and give you the handset in three years. That's exactly what utilities are asking right now," he said.

Updated at 1:45 p.m. PT on March 18, 2010 with photo of product and changed product name.