Five years ago, the residential energy management arena was a lonely place for Tendril Networks. Today, there is stiff competition from every angle, including General Electric down to the other startups coming up every day.
Adrian Tuck, CEO of Tendril Networks, said he welcomes the competition in the nascent market. On a panel about home energy management at The Networked Grid in San Francisco, Tuck said that their systems will start to be inserted into a few million homes by the end of the year -- a colossal jump, since most trials involve a few thousand homes at most.
The shift shows an evolution of the market. Ogi Kavazovic, the VP of Marketing and Strategy for OPower, was also on the panel and spoke about the information his company is getting from the 10 million homes they provide information to. Although it is still unclear whether utilities will be the broker between homeowners and energy efficiency services, the suite of products available is going to continue infiltrating the market. The key word there is 'suite.' There is no one consumer; there is no one solution. It seems obvious, but until recently there have been surprisingly few products that offer differentiated solutions to individuals.
“This industry has suffered from the perception that everyone is the same,” said Tuck. “Some people want the smart refrigerators, but there are others who will maybe just look at their bill for more information.”
OPower, which has a low-cost product (read: no home hardware) to deliver information through web portals, mailings and other readily available channels, embraces the personalization of information. Today, Kavazovic spoke of programs where they might see a trend where one house uses the same amount of electricity as its neighbors, but uses far more air conditioning. Not only will they suggest a very energy-efficient (and more expensive) EnergySTAR AC unit, but they might also provide a coupon for that product. Obviously, that’s not something you throw at everyone -- but for the person who will see the payback in one summer, it’s a value-added solution. He acknowledges that this low-tech option is just the first wave of this market. OPower delivers an average of 4 percent savings -- not much in terms of cold, hard cash for the average household, but a huge aggregate gain for utilities.
The OPower model seems to suggest that tailored information only gets you so far, something that Kavazovic acknowledges. At Oklahoma Gas & Electric, a pilot is coupling smart thermostats and web portals with dynamic pricing for an average savings of 18 percent during peak days. Matthew Smith of Silver Spring Networks, which is providing the systems, said that although the price point to put hardware in people’s homes is expensive, OG&E is looking to offset building new generation -- so the price tag is worth it. The project is still in pilot, but Smith said that the utility is anticipating a full deployment afterwards.
The three companies are all playing in the utility space right now because that’s where the opportunities are. Best Buy is not lining their shelves with home energy management systems and next-generation smart thermostats -- yet. People are not signing up for energy efficiency portals the way they are for Groupon. But they will turn to big box stores in the future -- especially when there are standards in place for these devices to communicate back to utility systems. Best Buy is already planning on selling electric vehicle chargers, and that’s a miniscule market compared to home energy efficiency products. And if you already run your life from your iGoogle homepage, adding in an energy widget might be a natural fit in the future.
Consumers are already willing to go to the stores or other third-party providers, according to Greg Guthridge, Global Managing Director of Retail and Business Services for Accenture. He pointed to a recent study by Accenture that found that 50 percent of people said they would opt in to programs that will share their utility information.
For utilities, keeping the customer close will become a question not only of what they want to achieve -- from peak shaving to overall efficiency -- but of survival. The word 'trust' popped up more than once at The Networked Grid this year. People don’t trust their utilities. At best, there’s usually apathy; at worst, outright hatred. On the other side, most utilities aren’t all that interested in being consumer-facing companies, said Kavazovic, but they should be. “A future where the utility is just running the wires is a bleak one for the utilities.”
In deregulated markets like Texas, there are still very few differentiators between the different retailers, but that is likely going to change. And with OPower contracts coming in with millions of homes at a time, like with their wins at Pacific Gas & Electric -- or Tendril installing its product in millions of homes by the end of the year -- some utilities are finding business cases to tap into the residential market.
As the market matures beyond just providing basic, useful information in web portals and on paper, the panel said there will be winners and losers on the utility side (and, surely, on the commercial side of this already overstuffed market). “We’ll see much more aggressive industry convergence,” said Guthridge. “All the non-traditional players -- they’re all going to enter the home.” In deregulated markets, utilities will have to compete or partner when it comes to household applications -- or perish.