Smart-Gadget Business Boosts Interest in Energy Efficiency

Home Energy -- There's an App for That!

I have a confession to make: I'm burning coal right now. And in all likelihood you are too. Half the electricity in the US is generated by burning coal. And with more of us charging laptops, smartphones, iPads and xBoxes every day, we are all burning more coal. But what if we could use these gadgets to save energy by showing us how much electricity we're using, and how much it costs?

Numerous studies have proved that showing people how much energy they use changes behavior. And if all US households saved 15% on their energy use, we would also save $46 billion on our energy bills, and burn a whole lot less coal in the process.

So how do we use our national obsession for cool gadgets to realize the potential of energy efficiency?

Updating a Grid Edison would Recognize

The first step is upgrading the grid. Just like most lightbulbs are the same ones Thomas Edison invented more than 100 years ago, the power grid is also an aging monster. It's one-way, centralized, wasteful, outdated, inefficient and dumb. More than two-thirds of the energy in a lump of coal is lost before it ever gets to your laptop thousands of miles away. The only way most power companies know you've got a blackout is when you call and tell them. But the new grid will be like the internet, with information and energy flowing both ways. A smarter, more efficient grid will reduce power outages -- saving us up to $150 billion a year -- while allowing homes and electric vehicles to store low-cost electricity for use at peak times.

The key to this are the smart meters being rolled out across the country. Up to 55% of US homes will be upgraded to smart meters in the next five years. In California, PG&E has already installed more than six million smart meters, reaching more than half their customers. SoCal Edison plans to have all five million customers upgraded by 2012. In October they are launching the SmartConnect program that will offer customers rebates for saving energy at peak times and allow them to set monthly budgets and receive email alerts when they near their limit.

Silicon Valley Enters the Energy Business

Green home builders and efficiency experts have wrestled with making efficiency popular ever since Amory Lovins coined the term "negawatt" to describe the value of energy savings. Yet despite President Obama's insistence that "insulation is sexy stuff," most of us are more in love with the gadgets we use everyday than what's stuffed inside our walls.

So naturally, major tech companies are getting into the game:

Google -- The company that gave us instant access to the world's information has a new PowerMeter that allows customers to monitor their energy in real-time. Google is partnering with San Diego Gas & Electric for the 1.5 million smart meters they're rolling out next year, but even people with old-fashioned meters can buy a simple device for a few hundred bucks that reads the meter and transmits data to your laptop or a countertop LED display.

Microsoft -- Microsoft's new Hohm energy program provides reports based on zipcode, home size and other data, or connects to your smart meter for real-time individual data. A recent partnership with Ford will allow Hohm users to synch up their plug-in electric vehicles with home appliances to power appliances more efficiently and manage peak loads.

Intel - These guys make the microchips that are the brains inside most of our computers and smart devices. They have a whole division called Embedded Communications working on making smarter buildings, cars and homes. Intel's prototype Home Energy Management system has been in development for several years, and the company will be announcing a major new product launch at the West Coast Green conference in September.

Of course, these companies aren't alone. There are a host of others getting into this space, and the smart gadget business is projected to grow from $3 billion to more than $15 billion in the next five years.

With our love of gadgetry, it's no wonder there's overwhelming support among Americans for smart toys to help us save money and energy. Despite concerns over the privacy of a smart grid, a recent survey showed 88% of people favor smart devices for saving energy, and 82% believe this is the future of energy management.

By giving people access to information and the tools to control it, we're on the verge of turning millions of well-intentioned people into more effective energy users. Now if only someone would find a smarter way to make electricity than burning coal....