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Home-Energy Monitoring Devices Could Be CES Bright Spot

A desire to cut household operating costs while being green, along with a government push for energy efficiency—could make home energy monitoring one of the hot areas at the 2010 International CES.

“There’s a big range of cost savings to be had, but there’s a significant range of systems,” says Stephanie Horowitz, managing director at green home design firm ZeroEnergy Design, about how well home energy monitors can reduce a household’s bottom line, while pointing out the bewildering choice of products facing consumers.

Control4

Horowitz’s firm makes energy efficiency a part of every design, but she adds that the usual early adopters present in all technology markets are driving sales now.

“It’s very user-driven if you’re very conscious," says Horowitz. "It’s kind of like having all the facts on food – you can make a decision when you know.”

Energy efficiency could be a formidable sector. With $127 billion spent by US households on energy annually, even the low-end. 10 percent energy savings targets of today’s energy efficiency technologies is an overnight $13-billion market.

Wealth Of Products

While dozens of products are available now, their capabilities vary. Current home energy monitors can be as simple as an energy meter compiling your home’s electricity usage over a given day, or as sophisticated as a one-box, home automation system with energy use analysis.

Utah-based startup Control4 is bringing its EMS100 “home area network” automation system to CES—a wireless, in-home display connected to wireless thermostat and whatever else you have plugged in. It allows you to check your energy usage and turn devices on and off as needed.

“Control and monitoring are separate issues that need to be brought together,” says Control4 CEO Will West. “[The EMS100] gives you full, rich info about what going on in the home. It’s a rich display device and management system in a box.”

With an expected wholesale price of under $200, the EMS100 also provides additional user-driven content, like weather reports and photo viewing, and works as a universal remote control for the electronics in your house. Some integrated systems like the EMS100 can run up to $600, says ZeroEnergy Design’s Horowitz.

At the simpler end of the tech scale, home energy monitors combine a plain display and wireless transmitter with a “smart meter” that analyzes your overall consumption.

Consumer appliance and toolmaker Black & Decker is selling its EM100B Power Monitor for $100.

Even with these simple devices, the effect on the homeowner’s energy use awareness can be dramatic.

“You turn on all the TVs in your house and say ‘wow’” when you see the energy use spike, says Horowitz.

Consumers are paying more attention to energy usage. Research by the Consumer Electronics Association—which runs CES each year—shows 75 percent of American households expressed concern over rising home energy costs.

About half expect increases over the next year, while three-quarters increases in the next five years. Some 86 percent say they’re taking action to bring down costs.

The Department of Energy’s Energy Information Agency pegs the average electricity bill for a US home at $96 per month. Black & Decker says its system will deliver savings of up to 20 percent. At that rate, the payback period is about a year.

More expensive systems, like Control4’s, have longer paybacks, but manufacturers of these higher-end products argue that they combine several uses and time savings with reduced energy costs. This multi-tasking approach, they point out, gets consumers to adopt now-foreign energy monitoring behavior while accomplishing others tasks, like turning off their TV.

The Carbon Challenge - A CNBC Special Report - See Complete Coverage
The Carbon Challenge - A CNBC Special Report - See Complete Coverage

Changing that behavior—and getting consumers to take action—is a big hurdle, but other green technologies have cleared it, says Jon Guice, managing director for research at cleantech market research firm AltaTerra.

He cites the adoption of Toyota’s hybrid auto Prius as a key example.

“By operating a Prius, [owners] get feedback on what they’re doing,” he says, noting that the car's dashboard has a meter showing driver efficiency. “People change their habits because of that dashboard.”

“The question is what level of engagement actually moves the needle,” says Control4’s West. “Consumers will stay engaged in the first three to six months—it’s like a new toy—but you have to keep the consumer engaged with the device.”

A big catalyst for the sector could be government support for energy efficiency in the recent stimulus package, says Jesse Berst, managing director of sector research firm Global Smart Energy.

Competition Heating Up

Whether it’s in new hardware like Control4’s, or in the software and communications technologies that enables the hardware, Berst sees a lot of competition in home energy efficiency from many directions.

“It’s being attacked by several different industries whose [clients] overlap,” he says.

Berst points to the race among energy-distributing utilities like PG&E; telecommunications firms like AT&T and Comcast(which has agreed to acquire a 51-percent stake in CNBC's parent company, NBC Universal) that already control your phone and broadband access; and chip- and electronics-makers like Intel and Panasonic , whose products will need to fit into this system.

Add in consumer heavyweights like Google and Microsoft , and a half-dozen smaller dedicated home energy monitoring firms like Control4, and “that’s a really crowded playing field,” says Berst.

AltaTerra’s Guice says its “pre-early stages” for the sector still, but notes that “home is where you see lot of electronic devices get deployed and get scale”, so he expects the retail market to be a key player in this sector’s growth and direction.

While institutional users have a much larger market, he say, convincing the consumer market is “where the rubber meets the road. These are important test beds.”

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