For some home energy management startups, the way into customers' homes lies not through the utility smart meter, but through the TV, phone and internet services offered by telecommunications providers.
Or maybe both.
Take OpenPeak, a Boca Raton, Fla.-based maker of touch screen and voice-over internet protocol (VOIP) devices sold through telcos including Verizon in the United States and Telefonica subsidiary O2 in the United Kingdom.
Now it has added energy management to the applications it hosts on its devices. While OpenPeak is making a big push to have utilities deploy the devices for customers, it's also working with telecommunications companies, though CEO Dan Gittleman wouldn't say just which ones.
After all, telcos are looking for new offerings to keep their customers happy, he said. They also have crews that can come out to homes to install "smart" light switches and thermostats along with cable and DSL connections, he noted.
They can also do something that many analysts say utilities will have to do to spread adoption of home energy management systems beyond the most tech-savvy and affluent customers – carry part of the cost (see The Smart Home, Part I).
"The carrier pays for part of the device, just like a cell phone," Gittleman said. Even with a company like his – backed with $90 million in private investment and the money he made by selling his previous company, StorageApps, to Hewlett Packard in 2001 – covering part of the cost for homeowners is an important business consideration.
Telecommunications providers have been emerging this year as providers of home energy systems, with reports that Verizon and AT&T were both making moves to bring home energy platforms to their customers (see Are Telcos Eyeing Home Energy Management?).
Verizon, for its part, has said it plans to include energy management in the functions it is offering its FiOS customers, though it hasn't provided details on when and where that might happen (see Verizon to Add Energy Management to FiOS).
OpenPeak is shipping its products through Verizon, Gittleman said, though he wouldn't specify whether his company's new energy management platform was included in its current relationships with it or other telecom customers.
Kevin Meagher, CEO of U.K.-based home system management company Intamac Systems Ltd., sees the telecom-home energy combination as a lucrative one. Intamac provides web-based and mobile device-enabled home energy displays and monitoring, as well as home security, on the cloud-computing platform it has developed.
Partners include Current Cost, a U.K.-based home energy monitor maker that has deployed about 600,000 devices in British homes, he said. Most of them have been installed in partnership with utilities including Scottish and Southern Energy and British Gas, he said.
But Current Cost devices also are being put into people's homes by telecommunications companies, including European satellite TV company Sky, Meagher said.
"They've only just started the program – they've been piloting and testing," he said. But soon the company is expected to announce commercial availability of the system, and may start offering the devices for free, he said.
Intamac is also working with BT Group (formerly known as British Telecom) to add "environmental management" capabilities to its Home Hub wireless gateways made by Thomson, and is a partner in Alcatel-Lucent's NG Connect program aimed at "next-generation" home connectivity, Meagher said.
Soon, Intamac will be partnering with a U.S.-based telecommunications provider to bring ZigBee-enabled home energy management devices, including smart thermostats, to the American market, he said, though he wouldn't reveal more details.
That project would presumably be compatible with two-way communicating "smart meters" enabled to network with in-home devices and systems via ZigBee, the low-power wireless protocol that is emerging as a forerunner in North American utility smart meter deployments (see RF Mesh, ZigBee Top North American Utilities' Smart Meter Wish Lists).
But like some others in the emerging home energy management field, Meagher questioned the idea that utility smart meters are a prerequisite for making smart homes a reality (see A Broadband Smart Grid?).
While most North American utilities are opting to build and own their own communications network for smart meter deployments, many in Europe are turning to cellular networks instead, he noted.
"I don't believe it makes any sense at all for a utility to be setting up a distribution network into people's homes via something like ZigBee, when 86 percent of homes have broadband in the front door," he said.
That idea has gotten the backing of venture capital investors worried about utilities' slow decision-making process and need to get regulatory approval for what they do (see Will Utilities or Customers Lead in Smart Grid?).
Investors including VC powerhouse Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers are also looking at home security systems as an entryway into home energy management, backing startups with relationships with security providers (see Green Light post). Home security is also part of some telecom providers' platforms.
As for OpenPeak, Gittleman said it's eager to work with both telcos and utilities, given that those two industries are already working on ways they can cooperate on smart grid efforts (see Your Electrical Meter Becomes a Cellphone and Echelon, T-Mobile Team on Smart Meter Contracts).
"The telcos out there are having individual discussions out there with utilities," he said. "They're also trying to come up with clever ways to get the real-time energy usage simply on a device like" those his company offers.
OpenPeak's devices are now WiFi-enabled, and all should be ZigBee-enabled by the end of this year, he said.