iPod team lead founds company to make home energy management sexy

The former head of Apple’s iPod Division, Tony Fadell, left Apple and founded a company making… thermostats.

No, really!

In January of 2010 Apple launched the iPad and I wrote a post here asking if Apple could make home energy management sexy. I speculated that because Apple had lodged patent applications for a Home Energy Management system, their iPad rollout would be the perfect platform to deliver it on. For whatever reason, this never came to pass.

Why is it important? Well, heating/cooling makes up around 50% of the energy used in a typical house – that’s a lot of energy/money/CO2.

Why is it necessary? Well, traditional thermostats are analagous to VCR’s in the 1980’s. Remember the flashing 00:00 you used to see on them? That was because they had an appalling user interface and almost no-one could figure out how to set the timer on them.

Well, the situation is not much better for today’s programmable thermostats. As I wrote in this post last year:



Look at the thermostat above. This is the thermostat to control the central heating/air conditioning in my home. I like to think I am reasonably technical. I have been a Windows sysadmin for a multi-national company, managing Windows, Exchange, Active Directory, ISA and SQL Servers. I edit php files regularly, I remotely manage my own CentOS server via SSH and I?ve even done quite a bit of regex scripting of .htaccess files!

But this thermostat is beyond me!

I know it has a timer, so it should be possible to set it to come on and off at pre-arranged times. Should. Getting it to do so seems to require a Stephen Hawking-like intellect. And, even if I did manage to figure it out, it is so unintuitive that the next time the clock goes forward (or back), I?d have forgotten again and would need to start over! Which begs the question, if my phone knows when to change its clock forward or back, why doesn?t the thermostat ? but I digress!

This is far too much hassle entirely. So I don?t use the timer in my thermostat. Or any of its functionality (apart from on/off). And I?m far from being alone in this.

Home energy management systems have, to-date, suffered from having appalling user interfaces. Consequently, no-one uses them.

Well, that’s about to change – as the video above demonstrates, the Nest thermostat not only has a simple iPod-like interface, it also learns your schedule and automatically adjusts the temperature settings to match them. Furthermore, when connected to your wifi, it can be adjusted remotely via phone, iPad, or browser – forget to turn off the heat/aircon when you went out shopping, or coming home early from work? No prob, open the Nest app on your phone and adjust the thermostat remotely from there!

The device also takes account of local weather conditions in its algorithms. It downloads firmware updates and it maintains a history of your use so you can see how your behaviour affected your energy use.

This does, indeed, seem to be a very cool device (pardon the pun) and one which sorely needed, which leads me to my main gripe with the Nest – it is only on sale in the US.

Here’s hoping they start selling them outside the US very soon.


Trilliant’s Bill Vogel on Smart Grids, Demand Response and Investment

Electrical grid
Photo Credit ogimogi

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Episode 3 of the GreenMonk Podcasts – 42 mins 47 secs

My guest on this podcast is President, Chief Executive Officer, and Founder of Trilliant Bill Vogel. Trilliant are a company that

provides intelligent network solutions and software to utilities for advanced metering, demand response, and smart grid management. With more than twenty years experience solving meter communications needs, Trilliant focuses on the adoption of open standards-based technologies for electric, gas, and water utilities.

And Trilliant recently announced that it had closed a $40m funding round so I was interested to know how Bill felt smart grids could help reduce carbon footprints. I invited him to come on the show to discuss this and also to answer questions I solicited from readers of this site.

Here are the questions I asked Bill and the approx. times I asked them:

For anyone who is not sure what a Smart Grid is, can you give us a quick Smart Grid 101? – 0:18

How does that differ from the current grid infrastructure that we have? – 01:12

How does that work? – 02:22

And why would that be of benefit to consumers? – 03:48

Questions from readers:

Asa Hopkins
In the Trilliant vision of the future, what level of access will an individual consumer have to their own energy data, and with what time resolution? Will they be able to export raw data? Manipulate it through Trilliant software? Compare with neighbors? In the future will there be an open ecosystem of tools to allow individuals to learn more about their energy use and make their own efficiency gains? – 06:05

Are there intelligent enough systems right now to allow your smart meter communicate with your appliances, change your thermostat settings up or down based on energy pricing, that kind of thing, is that a reality yet or is that still a bit of a pipe dream? – 09:22

More questions from readers:

Jerry Sweeney
Trilliant sees its customers as large utility companies. Does Bill see any path where electrical grids could become more democratised. Where dynamic pricing could facilitate the sale and purchase of electricity by small consumers and producers depending on the current real time price. This could lead to huge growth in the production of distributed renewable energy and to the growth in demand response to pricing signals that suggested scarcity or abundance. How can the grid become more like eBay given the stranglehold that TSOs and Utility companies have over it. – 10:21

Are any of the utilities thinking of Demand Response in respect to demand stimulation and not just the traditional peak shaving? – 16:34

Still more questions from readers(!):

-Is there any evidence that information on its own is enough to change consumption? – 18:43
– Is multi-utility metering a real prospect/ has this been done by you? – 20:29
– Is there added value in a ‘Utility Data Channel’ that could be used for Security Systems, Water/Gas/BioHeat/Oil/Sub metering/ equipment control? – 21:47
– Is there interest in Smart Grids from makers of Electric Heating, Micro CHP, and Energy Storage Technologies? – 23:18
– Has electric heating been integrated with the operation of smart grids before? – 24:46
– Can such systems be modular and expandible? – 25:13
– Can open standards have a role in maintaining the long term value of smart metering infrastructure? – 26:00
– How can smart metering support markets in carbon reduction? – 27:45
– What happens if we do not do a form of advanced smart metering in Ireland, what is a worst case? – 29:39
– If Ireland is pioneering high levels of grid wind penetration, which other countries may follow? – 31:26
– How may energy prices impact on your business, is your technology a hedge against rising prices? – 32:28

Mr Energy Rating
What is Trilliant’s definition of the minimum functionality required for a meter to become a smart meter? – 34:07

How fat do the data pipes need to be between smart meters to have a real smart-grid? – 36:47

How do you overcome consumer rejection of Demand Response and avoid the situation in California where a major DR program had to be shelved because of a consumer backlash? – 38:35

You are heavily involved in the HydroOne project in Ontario – what have you learned from such a big project? – 39:50

Final question – you recently announced that you closed a $40m round of funding – what are you going to do with $40m? – 41:28

Download the entire interview here
(39.2mb mp3)