On Friday Microsoft (s MSFT) plans to announce that its energy management online tool Hohm is now live and available to utility Xcel Energy’s 3.4 million customers. Troy Batterberry, Microsoft’s product unit manager of its Energy Management & Home Automation division, plans to break the news at an event tomorrow at the Microsoft Fargo campus, which is supposed to host the likes of North Dakota Governor John Hoeven, U.S. Congressman Earl Pomeroy, North Dakota Public Service Commissioner Tony Clark, and Fargo Mayor Dennis Walaker.
While Microsoft announced that Xcel Energy was one of its utility partners — in addition to Sacramento Municipal Utility District, Seattle City Light, Puget Sound Energy, and a “half a dozen” utilities in the queue — back when Hohm was revealed in June, the fact that the utility’s large customer footprint can now test out Hohm is a big step for the computing company’s energy tool. The news is also important because it shows how companies are building ways for customers to start monitoring and managing energy consumption before smart meters get installed in larger numbers.
Xcel Energy’s customers can now opt-in to the free Hohm service (via the Hohm site), and then look back at their energy consumption history, see a breakdown of their energy consumption, and receive recommendations for how to curb home energy consumption. For Xcel Energy, it’s an easy way to connect with their customers, as Rajeev Purohit, manager of the eBusiness division of Xcel Energy, explained in a release.
Separately Xcel Energy has been working on “SmartGridCity,” a $100 million project to install smart grid technology in Boulder, Colorado, which was partly switched on in September (the technology is powered by Accenture (s ACN), Current Group, GridPoint, OSIsoft, Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories, SmartSynch and Ventyx. The utility has said that in the fourth quarter of this year it will roll out an in-home energy management web portal courtesy of GridPoint for the Boulder SmartGridCity, which seems like it will be a competitive product to Hohm.
Through early pilot projects in SmartGridCity, Xcel has been learning that the more communication it has with customers, the better, given the inevitable hurdles with emerging technology. As Alex Laskey, founder and president of energy efficiency startup OPower, explained to me during an interview on Wednesday, utilities are now facing a sea change in how they have to communicate and build relationships with their customers. The whole debacle with PG&E (s PCG) and the suit over smart meters, seems first and foremost like a communication problem, rather than a technology issue. Hohm can help with that communication and relationship building, beyond the more obvious goal of getting customers to curb energy consumption.
It’s interesting that customers have to opt-in to Hohm, via Microsoft’s web site, rather than being automatically enrolled. It shows that the utility is probably looking to give its customers a choice. Given Xcel Energy’s relationship with GridPoint (which acquired the energy management tool from Lixar) and other players that have built energy management web tools as well, it looks like consumers will have access to a healthy competitive market. On the flip side of that, Hohm will face competition from a variety of online and dashboard home energy management tools (here’s 10 energy management players).