The energy sector has a new fashion trend: the iPhone-App. eQ-3, a German company, has designed a program that controls windows, radiators, light switches and dozens of other household appliances at the touch of a button. US start-up Control4 offers a home management system that automatically dims the light when you're watching a movie or blocks your PC and TV when the kids are doing their homework -- this program too can be operated through iPhone and iPod Touch.
The electronics industry developed the technological basis for such a system in the form of a semi-intelligent process control system called EIB, European Installation Bus, in the early 1990s. But little has happened since then. The expected boom of smart homes never materialized. Such systems found some buyers among green energy fans and technology enthusiasts but they remain far too expensive and too susceptible to technical glitches to win over the broad public.
Power Grid to Open Up New Markets
That may be about to change. The climate debate has turned energy efficiency into a social value -- and the technical infrastructure of power providers is on the brink of major changes that will make it easier than ever for consumers to cut their energy costs with the help of clever energy usage management.
Governments around the world are modernizing their electricity networks in massive development programs, creating a smart grid in which the flow of energy can be measured and controlled in real time, and at many different points. A gigantic new market is being created because the power, green energy and IT sectors are intersecting.
The idea of smart homes fits into this market. The smart grid will allow power usage fees that vary by the hour depending on demand and supply, and that will permit intelligent home management systems to save a lot of money. Smart home systems could then make economic sense for everyone, and they could become sexy -- through iPhone-Apps and other systems that make complex technology accessible to anyone.
The vision of the new energy start-up companies is that average consumers will be able to control the power usage of individual appliances minute-by-minute. Energy users will be able to program their households to work as efficiently as possible.
Internet-Compatible Washing Machines
Cleantech is the new buzzword. Market researcher Pike Research sees the market for home management systems in the US alone reaching 28 million customers by 2015. Martina Ecker, Cleantech expert at investment bank Jefferies, expects the major household appliance manufacturers to launch their first Internet-compatible washing machines and refrigerators this year. They will be able to communicate with home management systems. Some firms are already offering so-called smart plugs, adaptors that enable older appliances to be hooked up to the system.
Hundreds of companies are expecting a boom and gearing up for what will be fierce competition. There's a glut of manufacturers because the technology has been around for so long. Experts expect the rivalry to be as merciless as it was in the early days of the Internet, when Microsoft and Apple fought bitterly in their fight for supremacy.
"Everybody's hoping to land the big coup," said Ecker, the analyst. "Start-ups want to evolve into the Microsoft or Google of the smart grid. They're attracting hundreds of investors and venture capital providers."
It's no wonder that the tech giants have also set their sights on this market. Microsoft is offering the system Hohm to give consumers more control over their power usage. Google is working on another control system, the Google Power Meter, which it says will help households quickly reduce their consumption by 15 percent on average. The US conglomerate General Electric is a partner in the project.
iPhone to Help Attract Customers to Smart Home Technology
But suppliers are still in the dark about what consumers want. There's a shortage of market research to ascertain how consumers want to monitor their appliances and what they expect from a system that controls their power usage.
Industry observers say the iPhone Apps of eQ-3, Control 4 and other providers are an attempt to attract customers and assess the market. "The iPhone has done a lot to develop the use of the mobile Internet," says Martin Vesper, managing director of electricity supplier Yello Stom, a subsidiary of EnBW. He said he hoped that would boost acceptance of innovations such as the control of household appliances.
It's not just technical gimmickry. Incorporating cell phones into energy management can make real sense. "They can serve as a remote control for various household appliances or send a text message when the washing machine cycle is over," says David Leeds, an analyst at Greentech Media.
But consumers aren't ready to use cell phones for that purpose yet. According to a Pike Research study, only 13 percent of respondents said they could imagine controlling their household appliances by smartphone in future. So work needs to be done to convince consumers.
That means the technology must be as customer-friendly as possible to reach a breakthrough -- in terms of functionality, price and distribution. And even if a small manufacturer provides good products, it will be vulnerable to rival marketing campaigns launched by the big players.
It's a risky business, but an important one, because ordinary energy consumers play a major role in energy consumption. Households consume around a quarter of all energy, according to a study by the US Department of Energy, says Leeds. He hopes that intelligent electricity management systems will lead to a "Toyota Prius effect" -- the Prius triggered hype for hybrid vehicles and increased pressure on the auto sector to become greener.
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