Consert: The 3G Smart Home Startup

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Back in June, I wrote about Consert, an energy management startup backed by Qualcomm, GE and Verizon, which relies on cellular 3G wireless networks for its service. I didn’t know all that much about the company at the time, but this morning, GE Energy Financial Services Managing Director Kevin Skillern unveiled a few details about Consert at the Always On Green conference in San Francisco.

According to Skillern, Consert will be using Verizon’s 3G network to curb consumption of individual homes’ HVAC systems and water heaters, and aggregate those savings — which they claim come to between 10 and 15 percent — to offer utilities the equivalent of a “virtual peaker plant.” The energy reductions are done automatically through shaving off energy use by those systems at various times of the day. The consumer sets it in the install process and leaves it, and the consumer isn’t supposed to notice the reductions.

It’s one of the first automated, wireless broadband-based, residential, demand response programs I’ve heard of, although EcoFactor has been working on a similar type of service. In September 2009, Consert said it conducted a smart grid pilot project in Fayetteville, N.C., which it says reduced energy consumption of consumers by 20 percent. In that trial, Consert attached controllers to HVAC systems, water heaters and pool pumps, to manage consumer energy consumption. Consumers also received a networked thermostat.

A variety of companies have been trying to find the secret sauce for making energy management somewhat (even slightly) interesting for consumers. Consert seems like it has at least part of those crucial features. The service is automated ,so the consumers doesn’t have to do anything. The consumer can see 10 to 20 percent savings on their energy bill. And in areas where dial-up is prevalent, the service also offers a faster Internet connection.

There are a couple of things about using a 3G network for residential energy management that could be interesting. The network can offer services in real-time, as opposed to once every 15 minutes, once an hour or once every 24 hours, which is common for other utility smart grid networks. Most areas are covered by Verizon 3G: 93 percent, according to GE’s Skillern in his talk. Using energy management to proliferate wireless broadband customers is also an interesting move, as it has clearly gotten the telcos to climb on board.

One of the potential hurdles I see for the idea is that sending technicians to hook up HVAC systems, pool pumps and water heaters could get expensive. However, with Verizon on board, its broadband technicians could be a good pipeline to tap into. Consert has raised $17.7 million from GE Energy Financial Services, Verizon Ventures, Qualcomm and Constellation Energy.

Skillern certainly seemed impressed with Consert (note, he’s the one responsible for signing off on the investment). “Energy management is going to be big,” said Skillern, though admitted when he looked out at the skeptical crowd (lots of investors, entrepreneurs and media) that maybe only 20 percent seemed to agree with him.

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