Solar, wind and other renewable sources tend to receive most of the attention in the emerging clean energy economy. But a raft of startups are developing technologies that tackle the other side of the equation: When, where and how energy is consumed.
In the process, they are helping businesses and homeowners reduce their electricity bills.
This trend is perhaps most prevalent in the building sector, and for good reason. Residential and commercial buildings account for about 40 percent of total U.S. energy consumption, with the majority of it used for heating, cooling and lighting.
At the same time, people increasingly are becoming concerned about their carbon footprints and the electricity bills associated with them, and governments around the world are moving toward placing limits and prices on greenhouse gas emissions.
The shift toward greater energy awareness has spurred a number of companies to leverage recent advancements in information technology to develop energy managements systems that can quickly and easily be installed in buildings.
Mapping Large-Scale Energy Use
One is San Francisco-based Arch Rock, which has raised about $15 million in venture funding to develop a wireless sensor network that tracks energy use in commercial and industrial buildings. The sensors are attached to electric circuits and send data to a Web-based portal for building managers to monitor.
The system gives what Arch Rock CEO Roland Acra calls a "decomposition" of a building's energy use—where did it go, when did it go and then combines that with what the energy delivered in terms of lighting, heating and computing.
Once building owners have detailed information about how they're using energy, they are empowered to reduce it, Acra said.
Real-Time Home Monitoring
While Arch Rock is focused on commercial and industrial clients, New York-based EnergyHub is tackling the residential market.
The startup, which has not disclosed its venture funding totals, has placed an emphasis on a sexy design and easy user interface with its home energy management system.
"We have focused on design, usability and simplicity from the beginning," said CEO Seth Frader-Thompson.
EnergyHub's system tracks the energy use of air conditioners, space heaters and other appliances plugged into its wall-socket adapters or powerstrips.
These, in turn, wirelessly deliver that data to a sleek handheld device with touchscreen interface, a sort of iPhone for the home energy management sector, that displays for users when and where they are using energy. The handheld device can also pull data streaming from smart electric meters to give users a view of their home's total energy profile.
While EnergyHub is selling its system directly to clients, it is also looking to partner with electric utilities, who might offer the energy management technology as part of initiatives to reduce customers' electricity use.
Other companies in this emerging industry are focused on specific systems within buildings. Seattle-based Verdiem, for example, has built a software platform for businesses to monitor, manage and reduce the energy use of PCs. And Redwood City, Calif.-based Sentilla has developed a system for businesses to analyze the energy use of their data centers and identify servers and other devices that are wasting power.
Automating Energy Efficiency
But as promising as these new technologies are, they aren't perfect, said George West, president of West Technology Research Solutions, a Mountain View, Calif., market research firm.
While they give users deep insight into when, where and how they are using power, the systems don't automatically reduce energy use. The technologies still lack guidelines for automating decision making, for deciding what lights to turn off or what air conditioning to lower.
"There is an opportunity to really transform how things are done," West said. "But I think it is farther away than people would like."
Besides more technological development, businesses using the new systems have a role to play, as well, West said.
For the next phase of energy management, businesses will have to develop sets of rules for these systems to follow. Each company's environment is different and each will have to weigh the advantages and disadvantages of say turning off lights in one portion of a building to save money while keeping lights on in another so it can continue to operate.
With the technology in place and the rules for it to operate, then companies and homeowners can really start saving money and reducing their carbon footprints using these new energy management tools.