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Greenbox, a startup founded by the creators of Flash, is trying to recreate the success of their online ecosystem for graphics and media — but this time for the power that flows into your home. This week, after Flash-founders Jonathan Gay and Robert Tatsumi have spent more than a year working on their software for home energy management, Greenbox says it has scored a pilot deal with Oklahoma Gas and Electric to test its software with a portion of the utility’s customers using smart meters.
For a startup like Greenbox, which is backed by the former CEO and CFO of Macromedia and aims to help residents cut back on energy use, utilities are the initial gatekeepers, so partnerships with the power providers is crucial. It’s a little like a mobile startup finally getting placement on a carrier’s site or having an app shipped on a handset. For Greenbox, the deal represents its first access to customers who can give feedback on the startup’s user interface — does it provide enough insight into power rates, does it affect behavior, how easy is it to navigate?
Greenbox VP of Marketing Matt Smith gave us a demo of the software this week, and from the looks of it, the interface is on its way, though still in the early stages. The premise is to help the customer understand electricity costs, and in that way it reminded me of financial startup Mint — it provides insight into an environment where customers have traditionally had very little transparency. And compared to competitors making similar software, the company is focusing on “actionable items” to develop an “ecosystem, not just software,” explains Smith. That could deliver value for developers, utilities, demand-response companies, smart-grid firms, smart-home hardware makers, and finally the power user.
Electricity bills have long been murky data sheets, so you may not realize how much you don’t know about your own energy consumption. Even cell phone bills, with various minute plans, give you more options and insight into how you’re spending. Using Greenbox, customers can see their electricity usage, track it against time-of-day pricing, receive news and alerts about major changes in power and pricing, and receive overall usage reports that point out trends in their behavior.
Greenbox delivers its data in easy-to-read graphs and charts using Flash (see example above). The team has also started implementing a community comparison chart that lets you compare your neighborhood and peer group’s usage with your own — we’d like to see more of this in future version, as we think this is some of the best way to affect a behavior change.
Another good way to convince customers to cut energy use is through dynamic pricing. Some utilities have started to implement time-of-day pricing, so power costs are significantly higher during times when demand is highest (typically about 2pm to 7pm) than during the early hours or at night. Networked smart meters pick up the dynamic pricing and send it to the energy management interface. In the Oklahoma trial a smart-grid network maintained by startup Silver Springs picks up the pricing every 15 minutes and sends it to Greenbox’s database, then to web interfaces for both the customer and the utility.
The Greenbox software will show customer which appliance are using power when it’s most expensive; the result is that customers can see that if they stopped running their pool pump during peak times they could slash their monthly bill. That, in turn, helps the utility meet energy demand without building new power generation.
We’ll see if the software becomes as ubiquitous as Flash. There’s a lot of competition in this space, coming from other software and hardware makers focusing on energy management. And it’s still the early days: Northern California utility PG&E has installed just 900,000 smart electric meters and gas modules, but it has a goal of installing 10.3 million total of both types by the end of 2011. That’s like the early ’90s in terms of Internet adoption.