A tsunami of Green Button applications is coming to an iPad, Android phone or computer near you, if you happen to be one of the 30 million or so Americans who has a utility that supports the Green Button initiative.
The Green Button, which was announced last fall, is a feature that allows residential and commercial customers to download detailed energy-use information in a standardized format to better manage electricity consumption and cost.
The U.S. Department of Energy has a total of $100,000 up for grabs for the developers of some of the best apps, which will be judged in the coming weeks by a team of experts.
One of the prizes is a popularity contest based on which app can get the most votes online. There are 55 apps in total, covering everything from assessing rooftop solar PV for your home to small business energy management applications.
There is a range of applications, but there is also an overwhelming amount of overlap. The bulk of the apps allow people to upload their Green Button data to the application and view it in some shiny graph format. A lot of the functionalities, such as getting an alert if your bill or energy use goes over a certain threshold, are increasingly being offered directly through utilities. Also, it is important to note that the apps that are entered into the contest are not the entire suite of apps that leverage Green Button data.
Most apps in the contest allow people to track overall usage, but a handful are focused squarely on vampire power, a term for energy use caused by appliances that are sucking standby power when they’re not in use. RemindMeGreen is an app that sends you a reminder to shut things down totally when they’re not in use. There’s also the literally named Exploring Background Energy Use that does just that.
Looking into appliance energy use is a steady focus of many of the apps, and while it might be interesting to some people, it is vastly overrated. Few of these apps, in their current iteration, seem to link to current rebates through governments and utilities allowing people to replace their energy-sucking appliances. Also, newer appliances just aren't the energy hogs they used to be.
Plus, you’re just not going to turn your refrigerator off at night. Knowing your refrigerator is using twice as much energy as it’s meant to is helpful, but just knowing how much energy your refrigerator is using is less helpful.
Many of the savviest energy management companies have learned the hard way what many of these app developers have missed: few people care about crunching their energy data. People will engage a few times to get a little insight, then they’re not coming back.
A question that could have maybe been asked more often when developing some of the apps is, “Who cares?” Does your mother care about this stuff? The average college kid? Your grandmother? Who pays the electricity bill? Who is this app for? Who has time for this?
Give ‘Em Something They Can Use
Generally speaking, people don’t like their utility or thinking about their utility usage. What people do like, though, is control. And there are some apps in the contest that offer that.
Schneider Electric’s Wiser app allows homeowners to control their Wiser thermostat and smart plugs, along with the ability to see their energy usage. WattCafe brings in weather data and provides detailed information on how to best set your AC to save money.
Other apps also leveraged weather data. One such example is Energy Forecaster, which lets people see how much energy or money they can save for lowering or raising their AC settings. However, the app relies too heavily on kilowatt-hours, a metric which means nothing to the average person.
Then there is a suite of evaluation apps for electric vehicles or rooftop solar. Some other apps integrate tracking and monitoring with helping a person evaluate if an EV or solar is right for his or her lifestyle. While the apps could be helpful, the question remains whether people are searching for an app to evaluate rooftop solar or buying an EV.
Building on the success of Efficiency 2.0, which was recently acquired, there are also a handful of apps that leverage rewards or points for energy saved. And of course, there are various competition apps, or competition is built into some of the more general apps.
In one of the boldest proclamations of the contest, Urbien Energy Referee assures users that “No one says you can’t save the world while destroying your friends’ self-esteem at the same time.” Good to know.
Novel Apps Peek Through
A few apps took a totally different approach. Watt@Home leverages Foursquare to build a profile of when you’re home and away to help you understand vampire power. Obviously it’s focused on the set of people that check in every time they get home, which leaves out a vast swath of the population (read: people over 30.)
VELObill looks to replace the utility bill experience, a worthy goal indeed. It is one of the few apps that clearly states that it will help people find the cost and payback of energy efficiency upgrades and then link you to a local contractor. How the contractors are vetted, however, is not clear from first glance at the app.
Peaktweak allows users to understand their peak usage and see where they can shift use. The app is useful in places where people might be considering peak pricing plans, but those places are still few and far between, so this app is likely ahead of its time.
Melon Power belongs to a group of apps that is zeroing in on small and medium commercial – an untapped market that could benefit the most from Green Button. Melon Power offers Energy Star benchmarking, the only app of its kind in the contest.
But there are other small business apps, including BEST application, eEnergy Manager, Power Drop, Watt Ease and GEMS, the latter of which can help businesses evaluate energy efficiency upgrades and track energy use. The small business apps are some of the most focused on actionable information, rather than just presenting data.
The apps are just the beginning of what will be available for Green Button. What is missing from the competition are the most active players in the space that are already supporting Green Button, including Opower, Tendril, eMeter and Aclara.
Although the applications aren’t incredibly novel, considering what’s already in the marketplace, they show the various ways to skin a cat. There will be more than one way to provide a basic level of insight for the average consumer, but information is truly just one piece of the puzzle. The best apps will make people's lives easier, and maybe save some money at the same time.
Apparently, the energy apps that completely knock our socks off are still off in the future.