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Intel powers its way inside the smart grid

Like Cisco and IBM, Intel shifts development toward the smart grid with home energy management systems, building automation, and high-end computing to model the electricity grid.

NEW YORK--Intel wants you to take more interest in your energy use but isn't fussy about how you do it.

The chip giant has developed a broad strategy to make money on smart-grid technologies, touching on everything from high-performance computing to simulate the electricity grid to home energy management systems.

Its efforts have been relatively low-profile because Intel's microprocessors are embedded in other companies' products. But the company is seeing some early activity: it expects to pilot test different types of home energy management devices with partners in the next 30 to 60 days in Oregon, said Lorie Wigle, general manager of Intel's Eco-Technology group, at the Jefferies Clean Tech Conference for investors here on Tuesday.

A prototype home energy dashboard from Intel. Intel

Also in the works is a project with smart-grid start-up Tendril Networks to let consumers program a home's energy settings from an IP television, she added. The companies expect to test that product, which will be able to communicate with utilities and a home thermostat, later this year, according to representatives.

The idea with home energy management systems is to give consumers tools to view electricity use and better control home appliances so they can cut utility bills. Simply providing more details will aid people who are looking to reduce waste, but it's still unclear what sorts of devices and business models will stick with consumers.

Intel's view is that there will be different types of home energy management systems, some of which won't require a two-way smart meter to be installed by a utility, Wigle said. And rather than just provide a real-time read-out of electricity usage, home energy systems should be mixed with other home automation features, such as security, she added.

"There definitely is an opportunity to really use energy as a hook to do the things we tried to do for a long time with home automation," Wigle said in an interview. Reducing monthly bills, which could be as much as $470 in a U.S. home per year, will help justify investments in these devices.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, Intel showed off its Home Dashboard Concept, a touch-screen display that hangs on the wall. In addition to giving people information on electricity use, people could also program large appliances or leave video messages for other members of the family.

One Intel partner is Open Peak, which has developed a tablet for managing home media, along with energy. Intel's venture capital arm, Intel Capital, invested in iControl, a company that plans to offer a monthly fee for security services along with energy management features, such as turning off lighting from a central dashboard.

Technology and service providers need to offer consumers different ways to access these systems--either through dedicated displays, PCs, or TVs, Wigle said. "This isn't going to be an instant phenomenon," she said. "One thing that you're trying to do is change norms and get people more concerned and aware of energy consumption."

Plug-ins and solar cells
Intel is also seeking to put its chips inside other components of the smart grid. One company, Moxa, has built a server for a grid substation using an Intel chip that can make translations between different communication protocols. Wigle said the company is in discussions with incumbent power equipment companies, such as Siemens and ABB.

Intel is one of several companies working on a proof-of-concept building in France that aims to be net zero energy. Its task is to determine what the ideal computing infrastructure should be for the building and to tie the building management system together with IT applications, Wigle said.

Other areas that Intel is pursuing include equipment and data services around plug-in vehicles, said Steve Eichenlaub, managing director for platform technologies for clean tech and digital health at Intel Capital. Already, it has invested in a few solar and smart-grid companies.

Providing the equipment for managing the flow of energy from distributed power generation onto the grid is another theme for its activities, executives said. "There are 16 microprocessors in a modern wind turbine. When we first started working in this area, we had no idea," said Wigle.

You can see Martin LaMonica's tweets from the Jefferies Clean Tech Conference at www.twitter.com/mlamonica.