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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.

VPhase, based in Manchester, England, produces a voltage optimizer that's available in the UK. The device connects to the fuse board in the home and reduces incoming voltage at 240 volts to 220 volts, the amount required by most household appliances in the UK.

Although it's not a device that can be installed by do-it-yourselfers, its makers say its appeal lies in the fact that purchasers need not change their habits or sacrifice comforts to save 10 percent on their electricity bills.

The company offers a handy everyday comparison to illustrate the savings: "Almost all your appliances don't need those additional 25 volts and you'd save 10 percent off your electricity bill straightaway -- that's like 40 pints of beer," says a video from VPhase, below.

Suntulit, based Fremont, Calif., is working on technology to control air conditioning based on room temperature or occupany so that the AC doesn't blast away when and where it's not needed. Suntulit's website is still under development, but the finalist in the 2010 Clean Tech Open has a Facebook page.

No date was discussed for testing of the two products, but a GE said its Nucleus Energy Manager, a plug-in device introduced last July for use in homes, is now expected to reach store shelves early next year and will be available at Best Buy.

GE, which has rolled out a smart-grid ready water-heater, dishwasher and refrigerator, anticipates a growing market for home energy management products -- so much so that it created a new business unit for them last fall. The second round of the ecomagination challenge, with its focus on home energy and resource management, is expected to help address that demand.

Since its launch, the ecomagination challenge has led to $134 million in investments, 22 commercial partnerships for GE and pursuit of a range of technologies from a pool of 5,000 submissions. "I think what we've developed here is a platform that can be used in a variety of directions," said Vachon. "And it's shown that it's developed a capability of having a life of its own."

The firms receiving the $63 million in ecomagination challenge investments and GE partnerships are:

Ember, a provider of wireless sensor and control network technology based in Boston, Mass.

GMZ Energy based in Waltham, Mass. The solar systems and services firm will benefit from co-investment by GE and Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which is one of GE's four venture capital partners in the ecomagination challenge.

Hara based in San Mateo, Calif. The energy and carbon management software solutions company -- known to readers for its work with US Bank, Safeway and the city of Las Vegas -- also is a winner co-investment by GE and KPCB.

Nuventix, based in Austin, Texas, specializes in thermal management products for cooling LEDs, chips and other electronicscomponents.

On-Ramp Wireless, a developer of smart grid and smart water wireless monitoring and networking technology, based in San Diego, Calif.

Project Frog, a designer of eye-catching modular smart buildings and schools, based in San Francisco, Calif., will benefit from co-investment by GE and RockPort Capital, another ecomagination VC partner. "This investment is a real game changer for us," said Project Frog CEO Ann Hand, adding that the ecomagination challenge is "really about how you apply technology to transform industry."

SunRun, a San Francisco-based residential solar systems and services firm will benefit from investment by GE and ecomagination VC partner Foundation Capital. SunRun's goal is to put solar power onto the roofs of millions of homes and as of last October had raised more than $300 million in project financing, including $100 million from PG&E.

Viridity Energy, a developer of next generation demand response and energy management technology, based in Conshohocken, Pa.

VPhase of Manchester, UK.

WiTricity, a maker of wireless electricity technology, based in Watertown, Mass.

The five Innovation Award winners that will each receive $100,000 for technology development are:

E.quinox of London is a student-run, nonprofit initiative whose projects include stand-alone, off-grid solar power systems for rural villages in developing countries.

PlotWatt of Durham, N.C., a developer of smart meter software.

Pythagoras of San Mateo, a maker of solar windows, skylights and curtain walls.


Xergy of Georgetown, Del., has developed patent-pending technology cooling systems based on the electro-chemical compression of clean, green, non-greenhouse gas refrigerants.

Photo illustration image credits -- Best Buy photo CC licensed by Flickr user Ian Muttoo. Logo from GE.

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