People Power Revs Up Wireless Energy Management With Open Source

logoPeople Power, the latest Silicon Valley venture focused on the home energy management space, will officially launch today, hoping its consumer-friendly product design and open-source home area network platform will make it stand out in an increasingly crowded industry. The Palo Alto, Calif.-based startup has raised an undisclosed amount in its first venture round from New Cycle Capital and several angel investors to support the commercialization of the company’s product launch. “We think we can build something that is significantly better than what we’ve seen on the market so far,” founder and CEO Gene Wang told us.

The startup isn’t revealing much about the products themselves at this point, saying only that they’ll connect home fixtures and appliances like refrigerators to a “simple-to-install system that automatically cuts power consumption” and transmits data to a web-based portal, according to a release from the company. We saw Wang present his startup at the West Coast Green conference in San Francisco, where we learned that People Power is developing a suite of devices that can easily be connected to the major power hogs in a home and then wirelessly transmit energy use over the company’s open-source platform.

“GreenVent” would attach to a home’s heating and cooling system, “GreenHeat” to the water heater, “GreenDog” to the dryer, and “GreenSentry” to the electric meter if there’s no smart meter. There will also be a power strip to track the energy use of computers, TVs and other devices plugged into the wall, and the system would “learn” from past behavior so it could advise consumers, for example, to turn off an appliance at certain times of the day.

Wang has previously led four startups, including Bitfone which he sold to Hewlett-Packard (s HPQ) and Computer Motion which he took public in 1997. (The company later merged with rival Intuitive Surgical (s ISRG) after drawn-out patent disputes.) He said the products will start shipping next year, and People Power is targeting three distribution channels — utilities, consumer electronics companies, and direct sales to consumers. Wang and his team have been “talking to a number of utilities and been getting great feedback,” though he declined to name any of them.

Besides ease of use, People Power is banking that its adoption of an open-source home area network (HAN) will help it gain traction in the market. The startup is partnering with researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University to develop a long-range, wireless communication system they’re calling Open Source Home Area Network, or OSHAN (pronounced “ocean”), which will be free to download and use. Wang said it will be the first open-source HAN. “We hope to spur a wave of innovation by creating this free platform with free software and low-cost hardware widely available,” he said. “It will help lower our cost of development because we’ll have a community that is working on the technology for free.”

Wang said the startup’s open-source platform will be more reliable and compatible with other systems and devices, and it will be cheaper for third-party vendors to build applications than the communications platforms based on open standards currently being used by other players in the home energy management space. Those standards, such as wireless ZigBee, were designed for shorter ranges of 30-40 feet while OSHAN was designed for longer distances typical in a home, such as between the electric meter and the back of a house, Wang said.

If People Power can deliver on its promise of plug-and-play devices, it will still face the challenge of being a young firm in a home energy management industry that has dozens of players, from nimble startups like Tendril and Control4 to deep-pocketed behemoths like General Electric (s GE) and Google (s GOOG). (We named 10 home energy monitoring entrants here.)

Some analysts question if enough interest exists among consumers to warrant all the activity in this nascent industry. At the end of the day, the purpose of these technologies is to help users reduce their electricity bills. “Unless electricity prices spike, I don’t think homeowners in most areas of the country will save enough from these systems to provide meaningful economic relief,” Jacob Grose, smart grid analyst with Lux Research, told me. People Power is hoping many consumers disagree.