Hohm: Microsoft's Mint.com for energy consumption, plus more

Microsoft Hohm will help you understand the energy consumption of your home. But will it help the smart grid? Project lead Troy Batterberry says yes.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

Microsoft says its Hohm website will help you understand the energy consumption of your home.

(Get it? "Hohm"?)

But what's the business model? What's in it for Microsoft -- and how will this really help the smart grid?

I spoke with Hohm project manager Troy Batterberry about how the Redmond, Wash.-based company's new site is like Mint.com for home energy consumption -- and why underneath it all, it's really the seed of a new cloud computing platform.

SP: How did you get involved in Hohm?

TB: I've been with the company 13 years, and 10 years ago, I went off, got married and took a sabbatical honeymoon with my wife to Mt. Everest. Literally on the mountain, I had a professional midlife crisis.

Previously, I had been spending a lot of time on entertainment technologies, and prior to that I was doing weapons research. When I came back to Redmond and told them I wanted to do something different, they came back and suggested the coming energy crisis.

To bottom line it all, that was the genesis for how Microsoft Hohm was born three years ago. If you look back, the other market we were focused on was healthcare. We chose to focus on the residential energy market at first because it's the largest -- bigger than commercial, bigger than industrial.

There are two things we wanted to help consumers do: help them drive efficiency, and help them automatically shift discretionary electricity consumption to off-peak times.

SP: So what's your business model? How does Hohm make money?

TB: In the short term, it's really about using data we compile to provide advertisements and lead data to consumers who want to change habits.

In the long term, we have the potential to sell some of these services back to utilities to help them manage the grid better.

We're providing a tool and a service that a consumer can use today, independent of whether their utility has smart meters in the ground.

We're also working with utilities -- we have deals in place with four, the largest being Xcel Energy in the Midwest. Collectively, 4.5 million households can use an enhanced version of Hohm.

We're approaching it from a consumer perspective, a utility smart grid management perspective, and a device perspective, with the Ford Focus. We want to create value for everyone involved.

[Hohm] is something that gets me up in the morning. I'm literally excited about going into work. One of the challenges is that there's so much tremendous opportunity, so many partnerships to support. But you have to focus on value. It has to start with the consumer. We take that point of view not because we don't value utilities -- on the contrary, we see them as important partners.

Site traffic is continuing to build. Consumers really want this type of information. But they want it to be an easy-to-use package.

SP: So what's next? Can I get Hohm with my next electric bill?

TB: Today, you get the Hohm application by going directly to the web. But utilities are asking about incorporating it into what they do.

Right now, what we're trying to do is totally focus on innovating those consumer experiences, independent of utilities first, and making it the de facto experience for the web.

I think the utility industry is really behind some other industries when it comes to online support. There are 3,500 utilities in the United States. A lot of them are very, very small. But we have millions of partners worldwide. We're going to have a process in place where a utility could easily be added to Hohm.

SP: When will Hohm go OpenID, instead of only Windows Live ID?

TB: Today we support Windows Live ID. We'll certainly consider other methods of logging in in the future.

It's not a trial balloon. We're in this business. We are in this business for the future.

Energy is going to become more costly. Renewable energy can be intermittent. Hohm allows for the first time to finally couple supply with demand. There's a great value proposition.

SP: When will you provide better support for urban folks like me who live in apartment buildings?

TB: Clearly our sweet spot right now is the single-family and the townhouse. That's the majority of the market. We will get there, absolutely.

SP: How will you get the word out about Hohm? How will my parents find out about it?

TB: We have a variety of marketing campaigns. We have a variety of grassroots social marketing campaigns. If you provide a great consumer experience that others find value in, they will let you know.

Our utility partnerships will continue to drive traffic. Our device partnerships will continue to drive partnerships.

We're creating a new category here, and that takes a lot of time and effort. But that's what so exciting about this. It has that virtuous impact.

SP: In many ways, Hohm feels like personal finance site Mint.com, for what I would call "energy finance."

TB: It's really a superset of Mint. At some point in the future, not only are we going to manage the information in your household, but we're make it possible to manage and control your use.

Such as through devices, in four to five categories: EVs, water meters, white goods appliances, smart plugs, the thermostat.

We think the thermostat is a strategic device when it comes to the household. Frankly, it's ripe for innovation. Networking connectivity opens up a whole new set of scenarios.

SP: Will Hohm be able to leverage Microsoft's large corporate footprint?

TB: It certainly helps that Microsoft is such a well recognized brand. All these devices really scream out the need for a platform -- a cloud based services platform. That's really our DNA. That's what we do. We think it's really well-aligned: the company, our core strengths and our brand.

More Microsoft Hohm coverage on SmartPlanet:

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