Weekly Update

EcoDog: Home Energy Management Rides Solar’s Coattails

Here’s an irony about eco-conscious consumer spending: It values status over sensibility. Green buyers are willing to fork over cash for big-ticket items like rooftop solar panels, even though those investments can take decades to pay themselves back in saved energy. But those same consumers shy away from spending a few hundred dollars on a home energy management systems that offer much faster paybacks. Perhaps this is because it’s harder to show the latter off to the neighbors; an energy-saving home dashboard isn’t as fancy as a roof full of solar panels.

But what if home energy management’s savings can ride on the coattails of high-status home solar systems? EcoDog hopes so. The San Diego-based startup has developed a high-end energy management platform, called the FIDO Home Energy Watchdog, that links up to every major circuit in the home, and interfaces with a home PC to measure power use against a host of utility price and schedule plans. The company is bringing it to market first as a household solar power system management platform, partnering with solar installers. That gives EcoDog the key benefit of access to lucrative solar tax benefits and incentives, as well as a tool to help homeowners squeeze more value out of their solar panel output.

If the product does what it promises, I think with FIDO, EcoDog could crack the crowded and still uncertain home energy management market. Here’s why:

FIDO targets a high-end market for a high-end offering. With all its granular home energy data and feedback, EcoDog says its platform can save 15 to 30 percent on annual power bills. Even so, at an initial cost of $1,000, that’s still a very hard sell to most homeowners. For someone already planning to invest in a $20,000 solar system, on the other hand, an additional $1,000 doesn’t seem that steep, particularly when it’s comparable to costs for other home solar monitoring systems.

It makes today’s incentives pay. Home energy management doesn’t have its own special set of tax credits, but solar power does. As I stated above, EcoDog’s system is included in the overall cost of a home solar installation that’s subject to the federal 30 percent solar investment tax credit. The system’s cost could also be eligible for state incentives like Oregon’s feed-in tariff law that EcoDog is targeting with Bend, Ore.-based partner EcoVentures NW.

It addresses variable and tiered pricing. EcoDog claims its greatest savings can come from helping homeowners manage tiered rate, time of use and other variable peak pricing schemes. Most homeowners today pay flat rates for their power, but depending on the utility and the state regulations on solar customers, many solar-powered residential customers get placed on tiered rate plans  or other variable price plans when they sign up for utility programs like net metering. That makes them an early test market for managing flexible rates. Customers in deregulated states like Texas — where EcoDog is hoping to start a 2,000-home pilot project soon — also have access to different rate structures via a host of retail electricity providers.

It just makes sense. Lots of solar incentive programs require homeowners to do an energy audit and pay for efficiency upgrades first, to see if efficiency gains can help them get more oomph out of their solar power. Ongoing home energy management could yield even greater returns over time, making the efficiency-solar marriage longer-lasting.

It will be interesting to see whether EcoDog’s gambit works out, because it’s a model other companies could follow, including high-end home energy manager Powerhouse Dynamics, which works with solar installers. Solar isn’t the only vertical to approach either — air conditioning dealers and contractors could start including EcoFactor’s temperature management software in their core offerings, for example.

Then there’s the whole concept of a suite of smart appliances with a centralized controller to manage them all. General Electric has plans to eventually include solar panel and energy storage as part of its energy-smart home platform. Can startups like EcoDog carve out a niche among early solar adopters against such heavyweight future competition? Only time will tell.

Question of the week

Could home energy management ride the coattails of high-status home solar systems to success?