Well folks, it didn’t happen this time. This week, Google and Microsoft both announced the end of their free energy data collection services, Google PowerMeter and MS Hohm, respectively.
This cannot be a good sign for the energy monitor business, especially the middle tier, notably Blueline PowerCost Monitor and The Energy Detective, but also CurrentCost Envi and others, even WattVision. All are priced at a point that is sufficiently high to make you think twice, and have a difficult task of demonstrating that the savings you’ll get will be enough to warrant the cost.
Higher-end models such as the eMonitor make a lot of sense, because what I saw was that the people buying them either had massive houses, or lived in places where electricity prices were high (e.g. Hawaii). I would not be surprised if these folks were getting bills around $500 to $1,000 per month. Not only did these customers have more money, they had a harder problem to identify, but easier to solve — one pool pump turned off for a few hours, or one AC unit turned down a little could easily justify the much higher cost. This same math doesn’t work for normal folks whose electricity bill is just one more $130/month bill.
Back in those heady days of 2008 when people gave a damn about things past the end of their nose (like energy conservation, climate change, etc.), businesses arose to support the novel idea that you should be able to keep track of how much energy you used. And Google and MS both offered services that supported these businesses by storing power data and providing a web interface.
But the start was rocky.
I blame The Energy Detective, or TED. I had the distinct displeasure of working with this company for some time, and have really pretty much nothing good to say about them. At first, it seemed great. But it turned out to be terrible. They created a product that was ridiculously and needlessly complicated, turned out to be very difficult to install, required an electrician and a network engineer, had poor quality control, and which is fickle at best, and for many people (including me) broke or failed repeatedly. Add to that several people in the support department, and the company’s CEO who were arrogant, dismissive and repeatedly pissed off customers with horrible service. Oh, and lets not forget the time in Fall of 2009 where they reported a short delay in shipment, which was only resolved about 5 months later. How to make people angry, 101.
TED 5000 was the first product that connected to Google PowerMeter, and in the Google support forums, people became angry at Google (whose service was free) when the TED 5000 failed in any of the numerous ways it could fail. Reports from Google, and even from TED competitors were that the outpouring of disgust against Google due to TED failures made Google reluctant to support any other products. Eventually they opened their API, but the TED had left a sour taste in everybody’s mouths.
So I blame Energy Inc, and TED 5000 for killing Google PowerMeter.
If the TED 5000 experience were not bad enough, Google PowerMeter also provided an interface to utilities who could upload customer data. Few joined, and reports were that many of those that did had spotty support. Utility companies get runner up for this dubious honor.
As Google found out, no good deed goes unpunished. It was noble of them. If only simpler and more elegant products like Wattvision had been the first to go, the world may have been a different place — their product sells in the same price range, does not require an electrician, and has a far better (i.e. simpler) design than TED, or even the venerable PowerCost Monitor. Of all that I tried (and I tried them all), only Wattvision “just worked”, and still does. I would think that there’s a way to make it much less expensive (remove the WiFi chip!!) and more useful (add a simple display). But chances are, the game is up.
I still find it odd to think that electricity (and other household energy) monitoring is not just something every house has. I still save tons of money every month, about $100/month at current rates (paying for all of my monitors many times over). We did this simply by finding small loads that I was able to eliminate. Until we make energy something that people can feel, nothing will happen. This is evident every time gas prices go up because paying for gas is something you do enough to know it costs something. Not so for electricity, and mostly not so for heating energy — they are hidden.
It will happen eventually, but not now. Our infrastructure is in terrible shape. Our will to take action appears to be in even worse shape.