Europe is a hotbed for residential energy innovation, with a significant and growing number of homes equipped with rooftop solar, behind-the-meter batteries, advanced energy controls, and other distributed energy resources.
It’s also a complex market, with giant utilities like E.ON, RWE, Centrica, Engie, Enel and Iberdrola competing across the continent’s competitive retail markets — partnering with, and sometimes acquiring, startups with technology or market share in this emerging field.
Over the past 10 years, German startup GreenCom has taken a software-only approach to this market, by white-labeling its internet-of-things (IOT) capabilities for a growing number of European residential energy management deployments.
While the 10-year-old startup has been close-lipped about the number of homes using its software, GreenCom has some showcase projects under its belt like Cologne, Germany’s smart city district. The Munich-based company has also embedded its software into home energy devices including solar inverters, smart thermostats and behind-the-meter battery and EV charger control systems to enable its software in the field,.
GreenCom hasn’t explicitly named which of Europe’s big smart-home brands are using its software, but in recent months it’s announced deals indicating that it may be emerging as a technology of choice for some of Europe’s major utilities.
The first came in February, when it won an undisclosed investment from Centrica — a deal announced in conjunction with the U.K.-based energy giant’s rollout of a plan to push into the smart home business in Europe, the U.K. and eventually the U.S.
The second came this week, when GreenCom acquired Shine, a startup founded by Innogy Innovations Hub, the incubator arm of German utility innogy.
As the subsidiary set up two years ago to hold German utility RWE’s renewable assets, electricity networks and retail operations, Innogy is a competitor with Centrica and the rest of Europe’s energy retail giants.
More announcements coming
Shine and GreenCom have been working together for some time, GreenCom CEO Christian Feisst said in a Tuesday interview. That’s largely been through supporting Innogy’s rollout of Shine’s tools for what might be considered the residential energy "power user."
Using a hardware device mounted to the home’s electricity meter, the Shine platform can collect detailed energy data and use it to provide homeowners with 3D imagery of their energy spend, scour the market for better retail energy offerings based on a home’s energy usage profile, and other more sophisticated home energy tasks.
As described on Innogy’s website, Shine is the customer-facing name for Easy Optimize GmbH. The company was formed by employees of the former RWE Effizienz, RWE AG and Innovation Hub, and built on control box software developed by Dutch company Homa, acquired by RWE in 2015. The product is available in Germany, and according to Feisst, “Shine was one of our customers, and Shine is using our technology.”
By buying Shine, GreenCom will gain access to several things, he said.
“Shine is an end-customer brand, created by the Innogy Innovation Hub to demonstrate new services in the digital world," Feisst said.
Through that work, "it also created a lot of knowledge around end-customer processes — how to acquire customers, how to support customers — and all of that is very important for utilities to understand.”
Buying Shine will place GreenCom in the position of competing directly with Innogy for high-tech home energy management offerings, Feisst conceded — at least for the time being.
“The answer now would be yes. But the answer in a few weeks may be that they’ve won a new partner,” Feisst said of Innogy, adding that GreenCom expects to make another announcement around its Shine acquisition in the next month.
He wouldn’t provide any further details, beyond clarifying that GreenCom was not planning to be acquired itself. But he noted that GreenCom’s longstanding work with Shine means “we obviously have various tight relationships to Innogy. Just what that relationship will be — there will be more to come in a couple of weeks.”
The competitive landscape
Before founding GreenCom, Feisst was one of the co-founders of Cisco’s smart grid business unit, informing GreenCom’s work on its core device networking and management platform, he said.
GreenCom was also designed “not [as] a generic IOT platform, but focused on connecting distributed assets that have relevance on the energy side,” he said. Those devices include solar panels and inverters, the micro-combined heat and power systems popular in European homes, and energy storage devices including batteries, electric vehicles and thermal storage.
To integrate its software into these devices, “We’ve developed communication gateways with a local software stack running, that allow us to quickly integrate all those devices, even with legacy and proprietary protocols,” he said.
GreenCom's cloud platform for managing these devices can also perform analytics, from meat-and-potatoes tasks like confirming network and device reliability, to more advanced functions like forecasting energy spend and requirements to optimize a household’s mix of generation, storage and consumption.
GreenCom's technology can also support the orchestration of multiple distributed energy resources into a virtual power plant (VPP), or manage a home's energy balance to support new forms of tariffs like flat rates for energy, he said.
"That means the end customer has a carefree offering — they don’t care about anything, just a monthly payment against the flat rate."
"You as a utility have to manage the complexity, manage the risk. [...] That’s when your VPP becomes part of a general offering around your business customers."
Software-only approach a differentiator
GreenCom’s software-only approach differentiates it from another big European home energy management competitor — tiko, a 2012 joint venture of Swisscom and Repower that claims more than 100 megawatts of load under its real-time control across Switzerland, Germany, France and Austria.
French energy giant Engie took a majority stake in tiko last month, and the two are seeking opportunities in the U.S. and Australian markets, as well as in Europe.
Tiko’s technology requires installation of an in-home device, Feisst pointed out — an important piece of technology to support the second-by-second load and storage controls it taps for frequency regulation service, its primary route to earning revenues with the devices it controls. GreenCom’s approach, by contrast, avoids the additional cost of a standalone device in favor of embedding it in other devices.
“We believe that hardware should be a commodity, and at some point we might not need hardware anymore, because all devices should be capable of communicating," he said.
Sonnen has built its customer base of thousands of homes around its core solar-battery-home energy management offering — a much more capital-intensive business model.