The broadband smart energy home grows stronger

Who needs smart meters when you’ve got broadband? Last week saw two announcements that shed some light onto the future of using broadband for home energy management. In my weekly update at GigaOm Pro (subscription required), I outline some of the reasons why broadband-based home energy management tools could leave smart meter–based efforts in the dust.

The two announcements aren’t linked in any way, at least not yet. The first was startup EcoFactor’s announcement that it’s been able to cut average household power bills by 17 percent with an Internet-connected smart thermostat. The second was the launch of Comcast’s (s CMCSA) Xfinity Home Security service with startup software partner iControl.

Wait a second, you’re saying, what does home security have to do with home energy management? Well, security-minded services, like turning lights on and off, can deliver direct energy savings, while networked door locks or video cameras can help home automation systems turn off light and heat in unoccupied rooms and perform other energy-related functions.

That’s important, because consumers have proven that they’ll pay something for home security but not necessarily for home energy tools. Even now, broadband providers like Comcast and rival Verizon (s VZ) are busy offering home security add-ons to lure more customers, usually with some kind of basic, smart thermostat–centered energy management freebie thrown in as well.

Thus there’s the potential for a company like EcoFactor to come in. EcoFactor’s cloud-based software uses masses of data — weather reports, home building permits, past energy use data and the like — to adjust each thermostat to save energy while keeping home temperatures in people’s comfort ranges. What’s more, it does it with little input from the homeowner, beyond the initial presets (for example, “home versus away”) as well as any manual overrides of the thermostat.

Automating thermostat-based energy saving could be a big improvement over most smart meter–style energy management concepts, which tend to rely on punishingly high peak power rates to pilot customers to encourage them to cut peak power use. But it’s not yet clear whether utility regulators will allow many utilities to price residential peak power so high, since some reports have raised the concern that doing so could hurt certain segments of the population, like the low income, the elderly and the unemployed.

EcoFactor’s hands-off, subtle thermostat-tweaking approach could be far more popular approach with homeowners and regulators alike. But because it relies on cloud computing, it may require broadband connections — rather than the lower-bandwidth, less-frequent communications permitted by smart meters — to get the job done on a mass scale.

Will broadband supplant smart meters as the route for linking homeowners and their energy use? It’s unclear whether broadband–home automation offerings will catch on en masse or whether energy management will ever become a focus of those customers who do invest in it. One interesting model might be for utilities to offer their broadband-enabled customers special rebates or other incentives to install an EcoFactor-like, automated energy-saving system and at the same time move forward with smart meter–enabled programs. And because broadband offers far faster and higher bandwidth digital connectivity than most smart meter systems, utilities might be able to get far more control and visibility into people’s homes using broadband than they ever hope to with smart meters.

Image courtesy of Tekneco via Creative Commons license