Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Microsoft wants to show you how to cut your utility bills.


Microsoft wants to show you how to cut your utility bills.

The software giant will enter the burgeoning business of home-energy management on Wednesday with Hohm, a free Web application designed to show consumers how to conserve electricity and natural gas. Microsoft's chief research and strategy officer, Craig Mundie, is scheduled to introduce Hohm and discuss Microsoft's energy strategy at the Edison Electric Institute utility industry conference on Wednesday.

It's a move that stands to shake up home-energy monitoring, a business that dozens of start-ups and IT industry heavyweights, including Google, Cisco, and Verizon, are moving into. There are already several advice Web sites that help consumers get tips on how to save money by providing guidance on weatherizing a home, for example.

But Microsoft designed Hohm as a cloud-computing application--built on the Azure online operating system and Bing search engine--so that users can tap into back-end data analytics for more tailored advice. Hohm provides tips based on models licensed from the Department of Energy and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, which were developed with years of data, according to Microsoft.

The Hohm residential energy management application gives consumers ways to track energy use at home and offers advice on cutting bills.

(Credit: Microsoft)
Another break from the rest of the pack is that Microsoft on Wednesday plans to make a software development kit available to utilities, which would allow a customer's bill information to be fed automatically into the application. Initially, most users need to input data manually, but over time, the company expects that many utilities will provide that service.

"It's analogous to financial applications when they were released years ago that interacted with banks' online applications," said Troy Batterberry, product unit manager for Hohm. "Now you'd be hard-pressed to find a bank that doesn't export data to Quicken or another common format. We see energy going the same route," said Batterberry.

The recommendations from Hohm should get better over time as more people use it, which will improve the underlying analytics, he said.

The first utilities to sign on to use Hohm are Puget Sound Energy, Sacramento Municipal Utility District, Seattle City Light, and Xcel Energy. Two smart-meter vendors--Itron and Landis+Gyr--are also partnering with Microsoft to provide more detailed information.

Business model of the future?
Microsoft has been developing a business around residential energy management for about two years and has been working on the Hohm application for about a year, Batterberry said. He anticipates that it will be in beta testing for about nine months.

Initially, the company plans to sell contextual ads to make some revenue. Down the road, however, Microsoft anticipates that it can become a sort of information broker between customers and utilities looking for ways to improve the efficiency of their customers.

Many utilities have energy-efficiency programs that offer customers discounts to upgrade home equipment, such as more efficient hot water heaters.

As part of their smart-grid programs, some utilities are also testing what are called demand-response programs where they can, with a customer's permission, temporarily turn down an air conditioner thermostat or turn off a hot water heater. This allows the utility to dial back the demand for energy during peak times in exchange for a credit of some sort to consumers.

In a few years, Microsoft expects to be able to aggregate information from several households willing to participate in efficiency programs to utilities. For example, this "demand-side management" service would tell utilities that they can expect a reduction of electricity use during peak times, explained Batterberry.

Personal information is secured by the same service used with Microsoft's HealthVault health care service. But Batterberry said that not everybody will want to cede control of its major appliances.

"Letting customers shed load is an interesting way to keep them in control of their energy usage, but there will be a significant class of consumer that will have issues with centralized control," he said.

Bringing scale home
In the near term, Microsoft expects it can help consumers even if they just want a better dashboard to view home energy usage.

Microsoft and other home energy monitoring companies plan to work with device manufacturers to get energy information from thermostats and "smart plugs." That would allow a person to attach a smart plug to a refrigerator or dishwasher to get usage information in real time to a home network or Web application. Over time, those appliances could be controlled to dial down usage during peak times.

Microsoft also hopes to have more vendors of smart meters, which have two-way communications built in, to support Hohm's data formats, Batterberry said.

Although there is plenty of available information for how to save energy at home, products that provide consumers more detailed usage information or automate tasks are relatively new. The business models to take advantage of efficiency programs in many cases are still under development as well. For example, a utility may prefer that consumers run dishwashers at off-peak times but people are more likely to do that if they can take advantage of cheaper electricity rates.

Microsoft, like Google and many other vendors, are betting that consumers will take a more active role in conserving energy at home. Tools like Hohm will allow them to have better information and take advantage of energy-efficiency programs already offered by utilities, Batterberry said.

"Customers are motivated to save money but one of the problems with this industry is just a lack of awareness," he said.
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer for CNET's Green Tech blog. He started at CNET News in 2002, covering IT and Web development. Before that, he was executive editor at IT publication InfoWorld. E-mail Martin.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

High-altitude wind machines could power NYC

(WIRED) -- The wind blowing through the streets of Manhattan couldn't power the city, but wind machines placed thousands of feet above the city theoretically could.

The first rigorous, worldwide study of high-altitude wind power estimates that there is enough wind energy at altitudes of about 1,600 to 40,000 feet to meet global electricity demand a hundred times over.

The very best ground-based wind sites have a wind-power density of less than 1 kilowatt per square meter of area swept. Up near the jet stream above New York, the wind power density can reach 16 kilowatts per square meter. The air up there is a vast potential reservoir of energy, if its intermittency can be overcome.

Even better, the best high-altitude wind-power resources match up with highly populated areas including North America's Eastern Seaboard and China's coastline.

"The resource is really, really phenomenal," said Christine Archer of Cal State University-Chico, who co-authored a paper on the work published in the open-access journal Energies."There is a lot of energy up there, but it's not as steady as we thought. It's not going to be the silver bullet that will solve all of our energy problems, but it will have a role."

For centuries, we've been using high-density fossil fuels, but peaking oil supplies and climate concerns have given new life to green technologies. Unfortunately, renewable energy is generally diffuse, meaning you need to cover a lot of area to get the energy you want. So engineers look for renewable resources that are as dense as possible. On that score, high-altitude wind looks very promising.

Wind's power -- energy which can be used to do work like spinning magnets to generate electricity -- varies with the cube of its speed. So, a small increase in wind speed can lead to a big increase in the amount of mechanical energy you can harvest. High-altitude wind blows fast, is spread nicely across the globe, and is easier to predict than terrestrial wind.

These properties have led inventors and scientists to cast their hopes upward, where strong winds have long been known to blow, as Etzler's dreamy quote shows. During the energy shocks of the 1970s, when new energy ideas of all kinds were bursting forth, engineers and schemers patented several designs for harnessing wind thousands of feet in the air.

The two main design frameworks they came up with are still with us today. The first is essentially a power plant in the sky, generating electricity aloft and sending it down to Earth via a conductive tether. The second is more like a kite, transmitting mechanical energy to the ground, where generators turn it into electricity. Theoretically, both approaches could work, but nothing approaching a rigorous evaluation of the technologies has been conducted.

The Department of Energy had a very small high-altitude wind program, which produced some of the first good data about the qualities of the wind up there, but it got axed as energy prices dropped in the 1980s and Reagan-era DOE officials directed funds elsewhere.

The program hasn't been restarted, despite growing attention to renewables, but that's not because it's considered a bad idea. Rather, it is seen as just a little too far out on the horizon.

"We're very much aimed these days at things that we can fairly quickly commercialize, like in the next 10 years or so," said National Renewable Energy Laboratory spokesperson George Douglas.

Startups like KiteGen, Sky Windpower, Magenn, and Makani (Google's secretive fundee) have come into the space over the last several years, and they seem to be working on much shorter timelines.

"We are not that far from working prototypes," Archer said, though she noted that the companies are all incredibly secretive about the data from their testing.

Magenn CFO Barry Monette said he expects "first revenue" next year when they sell "two to four" working prototypes of their blimpy machine, which will operate at much lower altitudes.

"We do think that we're going to be first [to market], unless something happens," Monette said.

In the long term, trying to power entire cities with machines like this would be difficult, largely because even in the best locations, the wind will fail at least 5 percent of the time.

"This means that you either need backup power, massive amounts of energy storage, or a continental- or even global-scale electricity grid to assure power availability," said co-author Ken Caldeira, an ecologist at Stanford University. "So, while high-altitude wind may ultimately prove to be a major energy source, it requires substantial infrastructure."

Saturday, June 6, 2009



DALLAS (Dallas Morning News) – Home prices in the Dallas area are almost 32 percent undervalued, according to an IHS Global Insight study.

The same study indicates that prices in DFW have remained virtually unchanged over the year ending with first quarter 2009.

Texas housing has traditionally been considered undervalued because of the ease of building in the state, said Jeannine Cataldi, senior economist with Global Insight.
Prices declined in 199 of the 300 markets surveyed.