GE, Best Buy Partner to Market Smart Grid Home Energy Controls

A device that can lower energy bills by reducing the voltage of electricity streaming into a house and a gadget to control AC based on room temperature and occupancy are slated for a fast track to store shelves under a new partnership between General Electric and Best Buy.

GE announced its hookup with Best Buy yesterday as part of a broad announcement of developments flowing from the year-old ecomagination challenge.

GE and four venture capital partners launched the crowd-sourced competition last July with a commitment of $200 million (with half coming from GE). The contest was aimed at identifying innovations that will push widespread adoption of technology fostering aggressive energy efficiency and a smarter power grid.

The idea, said ecomagination Vice President Mark Vachon, was to "search well beyond the walls of GE for those terrific ideas."

"The challenge has changed how we do business at GE," he said.

Awards amounting to $71 million in the first round of the innovation challenge were made in November. Yesterday, besides the deal with Best Buy, GE also announced:

• The second round of innovation challenge awards:

-- $63 million in investments and partnerships with 10 startup firms and innovators that are developing consumer cleantech solar, communications and software, and building efficiency products. Four of the winning companies, listed below, will be familiar to readers for their work with businesses.

-- Five $100,000 grants to Innovation Award winners in the U.S. and United Kingdom. The firms are working on standalone, off-grid solar power systems, solar windows, smart meter software, air conditioner controls and green compressors for refrigerators and AC.

• A further $20 million commitment to scale and fund commercial pilots of ideas generated by the ecomagination challenge.

• A plan for an ecomagination challenge in China. The new program is in the design stage, and GE and its venture capital partners are considering a launch of the region-specific competition later this year.

• A plan to establish a $5 million seed fund in partnership with the Carbon Trust to support early-stage development of innovation ideas in Europe. The Carbon Trust joined the challenge program last fall.

While the investments, grants, seed money and partnerships support the challenge's goals of identifying, funding and scaling innovations, the arrangement with Best Buy is intended to bring the initiative full circle by providing a swift route to the marketplace.

Products from second-round winners VPhase and Suntulit have been selected for fast-tracking: They'll get a boost to prepare for retail testing, which is to be conducted in select Best Buy markets.

Next Page: How the VPhase helps zap big energy bills.