People Power: Energy Tracker in Transition

Just what is People Power’s plan? The Palo Alto, Calif.-based startup led by Bitfone creator Gene Wang launched with the promise of a complete technological answer to the home energy management market. But as I lay out in my weekly update at GigaOm Pro (subscription required), People Power has now opened its arms to a cloud-based enterprise platform approach, one that may involve targeting the office even more aggressively than the home.

On Tuesday, People Power launched its Energy Services Platform (ESP), a cloud-based service to control the energy use of devices made by others. While People Power has until now put a lot of emphasis on its in-house Open Source Home Area Network (OSHAN) networking and communications technology, ESP will be fully compatible with ZigBee and Wi-Fi-enabled devices, Wang told me last week.

People Power once planned to develop its own products, but Wang made it clear that the company now considers its customers to be the manufacturers of lights, thermostats, office equipment, home appliances, and other future energy-aware equipment. He compared the approach to Silver Spring Networks, the startup with networking gear inside many of today’s smart meters. “What they do for smart meters, we’re doing for manufacturers,” he said.

That’s a pretty significant shift from what most have made of People Power’s original plans, but it seems to make sense. The home energy management field is crowded with me-too startups competing against some huge players — Google’s (s GOOG) PowerMeter, Microsoft’s (s MSFT) HohmBelkin and Intel (s INTC), to name a few. A platform that can manage disparate smart energy devices and technologies could be a big selling point.

People Power’s new list of what it calls active partners — Texas Instruments (s TXN), D-Link, Ricoh (s RIC1), Energy Inc., Esprida and Stanford University — give a hint at how the platform-plus-technology approach may play out. Ricoh, for one, is interested in going “way beyond office equipment” like the copiers and fax machines it makes, to offer an integrated office energy management solution, said Daja Phillips, executive vice president of U.S. subsidiary Ricoh Innovations. While she wouldn’t give any specifics on how Ricoh will approach the market, the company is testing People Power’s platform to control a number of devices, she said.

People Power isn’t alone in pitching a cloud-based energy management platform — companies like U.K. company Intamac are trying it out. At the same time, several new efforts centered on demand response seem to be aimed at an enterprise-wide platform for homes and businesses. General Electric has a home energy management plans that include smart appliances, solar panels, household batteries and energy dashboards. Companies like IBM (s IBM) and Cisco (s CSCO) are putting together building energy management at the enterprise level.

Wang places emphasis on People Power’s open source approach to its technology mix (for more on that, read my report at GigaOm Pro, “Report: An Open Source Smart Grid Primer” (subscription required).) The company is also deep into smart grid standards development, he said. OSIAN (Open Source IPv6 Automation Network) is being developed alongside the IEEE 802.15.4g process, and ESP plans to support Smart Energy Profile 2.0 and other emerging standards.

As for the home energy management market, Wang pointed to its partnership with Energy Inc., maker of the Energy Detective — a device that also interacts with Google PowerMeter — as well as its ARPA-E funded partnership with Stanford University for examples of how it will still work on getting people engaged in saving energy. While Wang conceded that the home energy market will be harder to crack than the office market, he hinted at some potential partnerships for the company on that front — “Home entertainment tends to use a lot of power,” he noted.

In either case, company-by-company integration will continue to be a challenge for building energy management systems for years to come, he said. As long as that’s the case, “We want to be the universal translator, a software-as-a-service collection point, for this data set.” It will be interesting to see how a startup with a little less than $3.7 million raised to date ($2.5 million from New Cycle Capital, Greener Capital, and other investors, $1.15 million in Department of Energy research grants and $10,000 from General Electric’s Ecomagination prize last week) fares against the competition.

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Image courtesy of Agrion SF via Creative Commons license.