Green Button energy apps target innovation and cost savings

The Green Button, as hoped, is unleashing a new wave of innovation for energy management.

As part of a challenge for third-party developers to take advantage of residential and commercial energy usage data, the U.S. Department of Energy doled out cash awards yesterday to the top winners for the most compelling mobile and Internet energy applications.

Announced six weeks ago, Apps for Energy received 56 entrants covering everything from price calculations for plug-in vehicles and innovative solar demand response to reducing your home energy load by simply unplugging idle electronics.

Grand prize ($30,000) went to Leaffully with an app to help customers visualize energy use in terms of trees. Users can log into their Facebook accounts to compare energy usage and savings with their friends. The Seattle-based team of Timothy Edgar and Nathan Jhaveri developed the Leaffully app as a side project, given their day jobs as software engineers from Microsoft working on the Bing search engine.

With 30 million customers now able to access Green Button data, the contest judges were "wowed" by the quality and diversity of the applicants, said Karen Austin, chief information officer and senior vice president at Pacific Gas & Electric and one of the judges.

Most impressive were apps that included mash-ups from various information sources to offer automated or mobile services or even gamification techniques to engage the users, Austin said.

While most entries focused on residential apps, second place winner Melon Power ($15,000) targeted the commercial market with an app to help building managers input their energy usage and deliver an ENERGY STAR score for their building. With many cities and local municipalities now mandating building owners to provide ENERGY STAR data, Melon Power helps commercial owners speed through the process and benchmark energy use to other buildings. 

Indeed the commercial building market is a huge opportunity for energy apps, said Todd Park, newly appointed White House CTO who joined the panel to unveil the winners at Connectivity Week in Santa Clara, Calif. "Commercial building owners don't necessarily depend on incentives from the utility to lower energy use," Park said. "They're more inclined to identify cost savings and data can help empower them to do so."

But some commercial building owners are already "sophisticated in their understanding of energy management and investment of their infrastructure," said contest judge Patricia Hoffman, assistant secretary for electricity delivery and energy reliability for the U.S. Energy Department. Light commercial and residential energy consumers can achieve this level of sophistication with simple and easy ways to take advantage of apps, Hoffman says.

Getting developers engaged early on with the data to create an "out of control innovation ecosystem" is key to making the initiatives work, Park said. Prior to his new role in the White House, Park was most recently CTO for the Department of Health and Human Services, helping launch the "health data initiative" and a series of "datapaloozas" as a way to leverage data to develop new healthcare services.

Indeed Park believes this first stage of Green Button development is just the beginning, envisioning a future where energy vendors compete in online or offline marketplaces. Comparing the energy market to early-stage, data-focused Internet businesses such as Amazon and Travelocity, he sees how "liberating energy data has the potential to create entirely new modes of service and customer valuation … going way beyond apps on a iPhone."

Power plug set of apps photo provided by boroboro via Shutterstock