We’ve seen a whole host of startups with interesting takes on collecting, analyzing and explaining big data sets to green-minded consumers. We’re talking about the solar installation comparison shopping sites, home energy dashboards and web portals, electricity pricing rate optimizers, and other software aimed at connecting energy consumers with what they really care about: how much it’s going to cost them, and how much it’s going to save them.Home energy efficiency

is one area that’s ripe for big data delving. Pretty much anyone can get hold of property records and demographic data to start putting together maps that predict energy use trends. Making homes more efficient is a well-studied process, with well-predicted rates of return on different investments, such as appliance replacements, new insulation, smart thermostats, and the like. Add data from smart meters or utility back-end systems, and you’ve got the power and pricing data you need to complete the picture.

But what questions do you want to answer from all of that computation? Rory Jones, co-founder and CEO of PlanetEcosystems, believes the critical question for homeowners is, how much are they willing to spend, and how do they get the biggest bang for the buck for whatever they’ve got to invest.

That means software that can predict multiple levels of investment, along with efficiency, solar, home energy management, pricing, rebates and the rest of the numbers that go into what that investment can pay for. “You can only figure it out using a heavy amount of permutation logic,” Jones told me in a Wednesday interview. “But if you can do that readily and easily, you can go to every homeowner and say, I think there’s an opportunity in your home.”

In fact, the software can assign an optimal, 10-year return-on-investment figure for individual homes, as well as calculate returns on investments aimed at saving carbon emissions or keeping the home comfortable, he said. It’s all wrapped up in its P-ECOSYS consumer engagement platform, which is now being used by customers including California’s Sonoma County and Best Buy’s Geek Squad.

Sonoma, which has about 240,000 homes, has seen several thousand homeowners get engaged via the Sonoma County Energy Independence Program, which funds home audits and retrofits, Jones said. According to the company’s website, Marin Clean Energy, California’s first so-called Community Choice Aggregation (CCA) entity, is also a customer.

As for Best Buy, it’s using the startup’s technology to back up its fledgling home energy auditing Geek Squad service, which it’s doing for utility customers including Pacific Gas & Electric, he said. The San Francisco-based startup, which was founded in 2009 as yoUtilBill and changed its name last year, has about 15 employees and is funded with an undisclosed amount, Jones said, mostly from himself and co-founder Stephen Malloy.

“The Price Is Right” Path to Home Energy Efficiency?

PlanetEcosystems is far from the only one claiming the magic recipe to connecting homeowners with their energy use. Startups like Bidgely, Opower, Tendril, EcoFactor, AutoGrid, Silver Spring Networks and others are helping utilities with big-data-backed customer engagement and efficiency and demand response program management. In some cases, the startups have bought the startups, as Tendril did with its acquisition of home energy analytics startup Recurve early last year.

We’ve also seen the big telecommunications providers, like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast, and home improvement giants Home Depot and Lowe’s, getting into the home automation and security business, which could lead to more ways to connect with energy-minded devices like smart thermostats or smart appliances. In this case, energy is usually an afterthought to security, however.

Indeed, making the pitch to homeowners to invest in saving on their utility bills is pretty tough, considering how little most residents actually pay in bills. PlanetEcosystems has decided to target a subset of the population that spends more than $300 per month on their utilities, Jones said, which means they’ve got the stick of rising utility rates driving them toward seeking efficiency solutions.

“In this top tier, there are so many things that are economically positive that they can do,” he said. “They just don’t know what they are.” Take installing solar panels, a popular pastime among higher-end Sonoma County homeowners. In many cases, the solar array chosen for the home doesn’t necessarily match that home’s energy usage and pricing optimization profile, he said.

For example, a solar system big enough to power the home entirely on its own may cost more, in terms of its long-term value, than a smaller system that merely generates enough power to keep the home’s daily and monthly usage from reaching thresholds that kick in higher-priced power, he said.  

That’s one example of an optimization problem that PlanetEcosystems solves for, by seeking out home efficiency retrofit options -- as well as suggested behavior changes -- that could reduce in-home energy demand at the same time that solar is adding supply. The startup then takes that optimized system and projects just how much it will save (or even generate) over time, and churns out a 10-year ROI figure, he said.

PlanetEcosystems’ consumer platform also gives homeowners tools to figure out the bang-per-buck of investments made to reduce carbon emissions, or to optimize their home comfort levels to their energy budgets, he said. As with the energy saving data, that information is customized to the individual, as fleshed out by the data the platform has collected.

The software also solves for gas and water bills, which is useful for doing things like calculating the different returns on gas vs. electric washing machines in different parts of the country, for example. PlanetEcosystems is also working on the appliance front with Best Buy, Jones said, with tools that can compare new appliances’ energy stats to what a shopper already has in his or her house, to give them a more accurate idea of how much they can expect to save over time.

On the utility front, the startup has built in tools for energy auditors and on-phone support staff, as well as a rebate submission and administration process that promises to deliver savings “in the click of a button,” Jones said. It’s also working on a marketplace for contractors and vendors to get involved, though it hasn’t turned that on yet.

Startups in this space will have a lot of competition from the entrenched home energy system providers like Trane, Emerson, Honeywell, Johnson Controls, Siemens, Ecova and the like. At the same time, the home efficiency market is highly fragmented and regional in scope, which makes for a lot of room for comparison shopping, big-data style.