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Home energy management a hot topic at show

Expect to see more gadgets and services for helping consumers cut back on energy use through a networked console connected to the electricity meter and appliances.

If ever there was a business that needed a dash of flash from the world of consumer electronics, it's energy.

At the 2010 International CES this week, companies from different corners of industry will be showing off gadgets and services they hope will make home energy management more attractive. The idea is that providing consumers and small businesses with detailed usage information and easy-to-use tools, they will be able to reduce energy consumption on the order of 10 percent to 20 percent.

Among the companies introducing home energy management systems are Whirlpool and energy retailer Direct Energy, which will do a trial run of a system in Houston that uses a touch-screen console from OpenPeak and installation services from Best Buy's Geek Squad.

There will also be a number of in-home energy displays, dedicated devices that use a home network to give people a real-time view of how much electricity they are using, along with options for lowering their bills. Consumers can also access energy data on Web sites, such as Google's PowerMeter and Microsoft's Hohm, when the house has a smart meter or some whole-home energy monitors.

Utilities have run energy efficiency programs available for years, but these home energy management systems are meant to be far more user-friendly.

"Energy is fairly low-interest. It's a low priority in people's lifestyle even given the value on the table of saving money (through efficiency)," said David Dollihite, vice president of product development at Direct Energy. "If it's going to work, it's got to be something that integrates into what the consumer is already doing."

One way to move energy management into the home is to blend it with entertainment systemsor services, such as home security.

For example, home media company Control4 at CES 2010 will be introducing a display for viewing and controlling lighting and climate as well as access music, videos, and online services such as weather. U.K.-based AlertMe and Electronic Housekeeper will also show off multifunction energy systems at CES.

But for all the activity in in-home energy displays, it's not clear that any provider has devised anything that offers energy savings and engages consumers over time, much like they would manage their finances online.

"There are lots of people who are, in effect, accelerating the build-out of what we think of as the dial tone--the ability to communicate. We want to be the conversation," said John Steinberg, the CEO of start-up EcoFactor, which raised $2.4 million on Monday for its home efficiency service.

Rather than build an energy management system around smart meters and a home network, EcoFactor is developing a service that optimizes home heating and cooling systems by analyzing thermostat data. The service, which EcoFactor plans to offer through utilities or cable providers, can help consumers lower energy use even with minimal customer participation, said Steinberg.

Security service providers, such as iControl and Schlage, are expanding into energy monitoring, which can be part of a monthly fee. Business network company D-Link, too, on Tuesday introduced a home energy monitoring service, which it will offer with home network-based security.

Regardless of which companies move into home energy management, different pricing and service options need to emerge, much like they did for cellular phone services, said Direct Energy's Dollihite. For example, not all utilities offer time-of-day pricing, which creates an economic incentive for consumers to schedule energy-heavy jobs at off-peak times.

"There are a lot of strategic implications for energy independence for getting the consumer to start adopting these solutions," he said.

With more detailed information and recommendations for efficiency, home energy management systems are supposed to help consumers cut down electricity bills. Direct Energy