Sorry for the extended lull. I’ve been off sick. My Clean Break column today takes a look at the overcrowded market for home-energy management devices and systems. There are many — arguably too many — different flavours and approaches out there, and for the average consumer it must be pretty darn confusing and at times overwhelming to hear about what’s coming, but not have a sense of what it means and why, beyond the hype, anyone should buy into it.
That’s assuming consumers are even listening. To be fair it is still early days, but you have to wonder whether market expectations placed on consumers — and by that I mean people who get an electricity bill every month — are unrealistically high.
I mean, we all know energy prices are rising and that, to help manage the impact, we’ll need to start consuming electricity more wisely and less often. Energy management technologies are one way to do this, but at what cost and sacrifice of time? You can spend hundreds of dollars on some of the options out there, but do the savings justify the upfront expense? Large commercial building owners are one thing, but are consumers going to go through that complex calculation for each new product on the market? I doubt it. Plus, as I write in my column, energy management as a product or service has other hurdles to jump:
As cool as these technologies are — at least for the tech-heads among us — let’s remember they’re not offering the kind of entertainment or services that might convince folks to upgrade their cable package or Internet hardware, or buy that big-screen TV.
Monitoring your electricity use isn’t enjoyable and getting to know the operation of your refrigerator better isn’t what I’d call fun. It’s not like hanging out on Facebook, Skyping with friends, or tuning into your favourite prime-time TV show.
There’s nothing sexy about energy management. It’s likely to be an annoyance to most people already suffering from information overload and other complexities of life. For this reason alone, the simpler and least intrusive the energy management technology the better.
On that note, I’m convinced that energy management will only fully penetrate the home by piggy-backing on other products and services that consumers are truly interested in, whether it be electronic entertainment, online connectivity or mobility, or home security. In this sense, energy management is just another “app” — and maybe even a free one — that’s part of a bundle of services on offer that are embedded in a single technology platform. People don’t want to buy more devices unnecessarily to accommodate some new communications protocol, like ZigBee. They also want services and devices that can accommodate new applications. For example, energy management today is largely focused on electricity consumption but shouldn’t we also have a strong sense of how much natural gas and water we’re using?
This seems to be the thinking, increasingly, of large broadband providers. Recently, Palo Alto, Calif.-based iControl announced it had raised more than $50 million in a Series D financing. The company has a home automation platform and supporting devices that combines home security, healthcare monitoring and energy management in a single package, all capable of being remotely monitored through the Web or mobile devices. U.S. cable giant Comcast was part of the round, which isn’t surprising given that it has already started to offer iControl’s services to its existing customer base. Canadian readers should find it interesting that Rogers Communications also invested in the round, meaning the new home automation platform it talked about launching earlier this year will likely be based on iControl technology. The company’s “smart home monitoring” is “coming soon,” according to its Web site, which shows a picture of the same iControl display being used by Comcast. (Control4 is another platform I like)
This, in my view, is how energy management is going to be sold to homeowners. As a standalone service it won’t get traction, but by riding on the coattails of other offerings there’s a chance that, over time, we can at least put the necessary tools in the hands of consumers. Whether they use them or not will be their choice, but if it costs too much, is difficult to set up or navigate, or doesn’t deliver the expected benefits within a short period of time, it’s destined to fail.