It has become an annual ritual at CES. Amidst all the flashy, connected, high-definition home automation technology on display at the annual consumer electronics show in Las Vegas, you’re sure to find a number of offerings aimed at helping consumers go “green” by monitoring, controlling and ultimately reducing their energy use.
But marketing the newest green gadgets is one thing: getting consumers to buy into them is another. Take the example of high-end home automation vendor Control4, which has been working with utilities for years on home energy pilot projects.
Control4 is promoting a lot of new features at this year’s CES, including new high-performance controllers and new video intercom interfaces, as well as mobile interfaces for iPhone and Android. What the Salt Lake City-based company won’t be talking about nearly as much are its energy-related projects, CEO Martin Plaehn told me in an interview last week.
“We don’t try to fool each other through optimism internally,” said Plaehn, who came on as CEO in September. “We know exactly what’s going on and what’s not going on, and the pace at which the dominoes can be pushed over, one at a time.”
That means that, until the company has market-ready energy management products to talk about, “We’re working with these utilities and other technology companies and other partners, and we’re not saying much,” he said.
It’s an interesting de-emphasis strategy for Control4, which has been lauded as one of the more consumer-friendly vendors in the crowded home energy management space. In 2009, it raised $17.5 million to launch its first utility-specific energy control platform in 2009, aimed at a lower price point (about $200) to bring it within the range of competitors such as Tendril Networks.
In January 2011 it partnered with Nevada utility NV Energy for a residential demand response project and inked a partnership with Silver Spring Networks. A month later it linked into a partnership with and investment from Cisco to work on the networking giant’s Smart+Connected Communities initiative, which was seen in the greentech field as leading to potential energy management deployments down the line. In November, Control4 was named as a partner with Silver Spring for Pacific Gas & Electric’s proposed home area network pilot, set to roll out in the next two years.
What’s changed? Plaehn describes a home energy market that was “a very frothy space” through the last few years. “There were hundreds of millions of dollars of VC money being pumped into it,” he said. “It was projected to be a gold rush, a winner-take-all type of land grab.”
But the promised gold rush hasn’t arrived. Instead, we’ve seen deep-pocketed contenders in the space like Google, Microsoft and Cisco withdraw from home energy management, while VC investment in the space has dried up. While GTM Research predicts the market will grow to $750 million by 2015, just how it will develop is still an open question.
The problem? Beyond pilot projects, few utilities are ready to subsidize the mass rollout of devices in the near future. A few large-scale deployments are underway -- Canada’s Ontario province is one example, Oklahoma Gas & Electric is another, and Texas retail utilities are beginning to experiment with different pricing schemes.
Still, it’s going to take time to see whether customers buy into the prospect of signing up for programs that give them the opportunity to save money by actively managing energy use, but also open them up to the risk of paying more if they fail to do so.
And without variable prices of some sort, home energy bills are generally too small a portion of household budgets to get people interested in making the effort to cut them down, said Paul Nagel, Control4’s vice president of engineering.
Indeed, while Control4 has integrated energy controls into its home automation platform, “It’s very price-prohibitive to bring that value proposition to the end customer,” he said. “You have to have a smart meter or an expensive device to get the kilowatt-hour measure” of home energy use, as well as time-of-use pricing to make it worthwhile to interact with it.
That makes energy management a tough sell, even as an add-on to core home automation features, unless it can be done at a very low price. Expensive DIY home energy monitors like The Energy Detective and Blue Line Innovations’ analog meter sensors are still the domain of hobbyists. Lower-priced retail home automation platforms, like Verizon’s new home automation service with Motorola’s 4Home and Lowe’s recently announced partnership with AlertMe, are more focused on home security and monitoring than on energy management.
What about Control4’s partnership with Cisco? While the two continue to work together, right now that work “is mostly focused on multi-dwelling units and smart and connected cities,” Plaehn said, with an emphasis on video intercom and communications for apartment dwellers in next-generation connected city projects like Cisco’s work in the South Korean city of Songdo. While those projects do offer potential avenues for energy management, Cisco has said that the business models have yet to be worked out for delivering high-tech connectivity to apartments and cities.
Control4 isn’t backing away entirely from engaging its customers with energy use, Plaehn said. But he made it clear that progress on that front would come within the context of Control4’s existing home automation business, where installations cost thousands of dollars.
“If you’re smart about how you manage your pool pump or Jacuzzi, or the floodlights over your tennis court, there are many ways that our home automation engine and the home policy that drives automation can help” reduce energy use, he said by way of example.
Control4’s initiative for interoperability and device discovery, which provides technology to third-party companies to allow their devices to be discoverable on an IP network, could also lead to third-party energy systems being hooked up in the future, he added.
But in the short term, “We have a very successful, growing core business,” Plaehn said, and it’s waiting for its customers to demand energy management as an add-on. “We had the strength and foresight to invest in a forward-looking opportunity, and we are very driven and methodical about containing our investment and our expectations as to what we see as a truly observable and measurable absorption of what we’re doing.”