Really Smart (and Social) Energy: GroundedPower’s System Pinpoints User Motivations to Lower Home Energy Consumption

3/11/10Follow @xconomy

These days, it seems there’s nothing that can’t be accomplished by the use of online social communities. Even lowering energy consumption.

That’s the approach taken by GroundedPower, a Gloucester, MA-based startup that produces a system that monitors consumers’ real-time energy consumption and spurs them with goal-setting and online community engagement to lower that consumption over time.

The company formed in mid 2008 from the union of a psychologist and educational software developer (CEO Paul Cole), a utility company veteran (president Carl Gustin), and a software engineer who previously helped found an online behavior change program to help smokers quit (VP of engineering Michael Bukhin).

Monitoring consumer energy usage for information purposes isn’t new. Existing smart grid technology includes intelligent monitoring systems that track the electricity coming from homes. But the point of GroundedPower’s Interactive Customer Engagement System (iCES) isn’t just to tell consumers where and how much energy they’re consuming, but to help them change their behavior in practical ways. The company uses the psychology background its founder Cole to incite consumers to lower energy consumption based on what really makes people tick

“It became clear that information by itself without helping people to think on what to do about it wasn’t going to help,” Cole says he, and the other founders, discovered when they initially started developing their product. “That brought us to an integrated system where there’s a self-audit capability and social feedback.”

iCES starts with a monitor on home energy meters, which sends information to a wireless gateway device in the home. The gateway then transmits that information (via Ethernet) to GroundedPower’s online dashboard, which users can access by logging onto the company’s Web portal. Once logged into the system, users can view their energy consumption, set goals, and create profiles to compare their households to others in the iCES user community.

“Our whole premise is that information alone will not create a persistent behavior change,” says David Rosi, the company’s senior VP of marketing, sales, and business development.

The energy monitoring system then allows users to set goals for their household energy consumption based on different sets of motivation, such as money, the environment, competition, learning, and encouragement. For those who recognize their main motivation as the dollar, their iCES interface reports their energy consumption and savings to them in terms of monetary value.

GroundedPower’s system also allows users to track their energy usage based on carbon output or kilowatt hours, to appeal to the environmentally minded. For the competitive types, users can adjust their settings to reflect the points they’ve earned by meeting energy goals and comparing that to the points earned by other households using the system.

When customers begin using iCES, the system performs an initial room-by-room home energy audit that determines which functions are gobbling up energy, from heating and cooling to lighting to kitchen uses. Consumers can drill down further to determine the energy consumption from different types of appliances, such as computers and stereos or refrigerators and dishwashers. Users set energy goals based on overall household output.

“It lets you see where the biggest hits are and drive behavior change in those areas,” Rosi said.

The GroundedPower system offers suggestions on how people can curb their energy use without spending additional money, such as plugging electronics into power strips, turning the strips off while not in use, and unplugging stagnant devices such as phone chargers. Customers can share the success they’ve had with these types of actions, and share their energy goals, allowing for feedback from other iCES users. This spurs on the types of consumers typically motivated by opportunities for learning and encouragement, Cole says.

“It allows people to really interact with each other in a more social environment to support each other,” says Rosi.

The GroundedPower system keeps consumers involved by sending them alerts on whether they are meeting their energy goals via email, their smart phones, or even snail mail. There’s also an in-home ambient display that illustrates how users are meeting their goals, with green (ahead of target), orange (on track), and red (problematic) status bars.

The company plans to work directly with utilities to get the system into homes. “In the eyes of the consumer, the utility company is providing another capability or service. Our relationship is to support the utility in that regard,” Rosi says. Utility companies can also use the iCES system to send alerts to consumers on everything from pricing changes to announcements of power curtailments.

GroundedPower raised $918,000 in a January equity offering and is in the early phases of pilot studies with its systems in about six municipal power companies in Massachusetts, across roughly 400 households. The current projects monitor home electricity consumption, but the system also has the capability of tracking natural gas usage, Rosi says.

GroundedPower is about six months into another pilot project with the Cape Light Compact, a Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard regional energy service, where billing data from about 100 households show that use of iCES has led to a 13 percent to 17 percent monthly savings on electricity compared to the year before, Rosi says. In the pilot projects, utility companies aren’t charging consumers for use of the GroundedPower product, but it is not certain how home customers will ultimately pay for the system, he says.

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