Let's face it. Most of us aren't going to have high-tech, gee-whiz home energy management systems anytime soon.
But we might still want to know how much electricity - and natural gas - we're using in our homes, and how to reduce that consumption and save money - even if we're not willing to work that hard to get there.
OPower – a software startup that relies on the good old U.S. mail to communicate with utility customers – says it can bridge that gap. The idea is to analyze utility energy data, along with a whole host of third-party data covering such topics as customers' income levels, rent-or-own status, and the weather they contend with, to give them tips to save energy that actually fit their lifestyles.
On Thursday, the Arlington, Va.-based startup announced a new feature – separating energy used for heating a home from the rest of a household's energy use. OPower is now singling out that information for customers of Puget Sound Energy in Washington state, the company said.
In the case of Puget Sound Energy, OPower will be using daily reads from electricity and gas meters - not smart meters, per se, but an older version of meters that can only send out usage data, not take utility commands, said Ogi Kavazovic, OPower's senior director of marketing and strategy.
But OPower's strength lies not in metering every household water heater or HVAC system, but in combining a statistical regression analysis of energy usage information and overlying weather patterns to hit close estimates of energy used for heating – or cooling – versus other needs, he said.
"We're the only people who've been able to figure this out, as far as I can tell, without any devices in the home," Kavazovic said in a Thursday interview.
OPower plans to roll out similar functionality to some of its other roughly 20 utility partners, which include the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, Dominion, Xcel Energy, Seattle City Light and Commonwealth Edison (see Green Light post).
In the past two years, OPower has raised $14 million to develop its combination of powerful analytical software and savvy utility customer marketing techniques, Kavazovic said. According to its pilots, OPower can encourage about 85 percent of the customers it contacts via utility mailings to cut up to 3.5 percent from their energy use over the course of a year.
That's on the low end of the 5 percent to 10 percent energy reduction credited to more high-tech in-home energy monitoring and management systems from the likes of Tendril, Control4, Greenbox, Onzo, and the dozens of others that have emerged in the overcrowded home energy management space (see Green Light post).
But OPower's back-end analysis, front-end mailer tip sheet method only costs about $10 per customer – a fraction of the $100 and up it costs to install in-home energy displays and control systems available today.
"We like to say, information and analysis actually trumps real-time energy feedback," Kavazovic said. The high costs of more hands-on, real-time home energy systems has traditionally been a barrier to their adoption, and utilities are eager to find ways to bring down their costs so they can be rolled out to more customers (see Utilities Mull Price Points, Policies for Home Energy Management).
OPower also doesn't rely on smart meters to give it data, a trait shared by Microsoft's Hohm home energy management platform. Though, in both OPower and Microsoft's case, getting data in daily, hourly, or 15-minute reads from smart meters that do exist only helps improve the accuracy of their systems.
Smart meters are being rolled out in the millions across the world, and Pike Research estimates that just over half of American households will have them by 2015 (see Green Light post).
But that still leaves a lot of utility customers needing some kind of dumb meter-compatible way to drive energy efficiency in the years to come, Kavazovic noted.
Still, OPower isn't ignoring the emergence of IT as a tool to connect utilities with their customers. Like many of its home energy management rivals, the company has a Web-based portal to bring information to people, and is planning a version that includes direct control of "smart" thermostats some time next year, he said.