ACme: Wireless Energy Management Goes Open Source

We’re heading into the summer of energy management tools and companies (like many of these 10) are launching wireless networking gear to help home owners monitor and control energy consumption. This morning we learned of yet another project — this one based on open source. A team of UC Berkeley students have built a wireless sensor network energy management tool called ACme, and the group has released all of its hardware design and software information, including the sourcecode and API, on its web site.
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The ACme system is made up of plug-in wireless sensor devices that users can plug into each individual appliance (a fridge, TV, laptop) to monitor that appliance’s energy consumption. The devices communicate through a wireless network standard called 6LoWPAN, which is commonly thought of as an advanced standard that’s compatible with the next generation of Internet Protocol-based devices. Software manages the energy information and makes sense of the data and the devices can connect back into the Internet. Team member and grad student Xiaofan Jiang says that the current ACme setup does the metering service too, so a separate electricity meter isn’t required.

While the set-up is similar to what’s involved with products from other companies, like Tendril, the team points out in a paper on their web site that most of the systems out there are largely proprietary. Tendril has released an API, but it isn’t showing all the details like the ACme creators are. The team writes: “Several startups, such as Tendril, GreenBox, and EnergyHub, have recently announced proprietary wireless monitoring solutions that are not yet publicly available. Their technology is similar to ours, and provides an interesting parallel in the closed space.”

Right now the team members are students first and foremost, and so they are more willing to share their info to proliferate the technology than if they were building a company. Jiang told us:

I believe open source will make it easier for others to adopt my design and make this technology more widely available. As a graduate student, my goal is not to prevent others from using it but to make it as easy to do so as possible.

Yet Jiang is also considering ways to commercialize the tool as a product, and has been discussing commercial ideas with online energy management site Wattzon.com. Jiang tells us: “Selling directly to consumers may be hard since it will take a few years for the device to pay for itself and utilities are generally slow to act. But I think there is definitely potential in the near future as cost comes down.” Wattzon.com co-founder Raffi Krikorian tells us that Wattzon has started coordinating its online energy tools with the ACme system and has even started distributing ACme meters (check out Wattzon detailing Jiang’s apartment.)

If ACme ever does become a product some aspect of the technology will likely have to be kept closed. I remember Wi-Fi makers Meraki were originally attempting to have their gear be entirely open source, but then ended up changing that idea after arriving in Silicon Valley and finding investors like Sequoia Capital and Google.

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