BY KEVIN MANAHAN
Green continues to be the hot color as we enter another decade, and sustainability efforts are still developing everywhere, particularly in Portland. Electric cars are charging into the auto sector, and more local businesses are offering sustainable products to draw in environmentally conscious consumers. But as the market becomes saturated with all kinds of green services, where else can entrepreneurs look for opportunities? The home or workplace might be a good place to start.
Industry experts and budding entrepreneurs alike met at the swanky Perkins Coie office in Portland’s Pearl District this week for a roundtable discussion on smart-meter trends, and the increasing deployment of the meters in homes and businesses to support a smart-grid system. The discussion was hosted by the Oregon branch of The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE), a nonprofit entrepreneurship group with 53 chapters worldwide. While the attendees spent a good part of the discussion engaging in tangential, friendly debates, the topic focused on some key questions: What opportunities are available for entrepreneurs? And what challenges do they face trying to break into the market?
Supporting a smart-grid network was among the priorities for the Obama administration last year, which announced a $3.4 billion investment for the grid’s development, $30 million of which went to Oregon. The smart meters making up the grid are aimed at providing effective, two-way communication between the consumer and the utility for maximum energy efficiency, while also spurring the economy as a bonus. And with 20% compounded annual growth, technology such as smart meters would not only be good for energy consumption, but also for customers by allowing more accurate bills, among other things. But for entrepreneurs, one of the biggest obstacles is the lack of access to meter data due to privacy concerns – a big conversation starter at this discussion given the information’s significance in developing business ideas around the meters themselves.
Is there any way to get that data? Aside from researching public studies, the best way to (legally) get meter data is by developing relationships with utilities, said Conrad Eustis, director of retail technology development for Portland General Electric. While utilities can share the data at their discretion, they don’t make it readily available for public access.
As for other business options, one attendee argued that since opportunities in smart meters don’t seem to be opening up widely in the near future because of those challenges, entrepreneurs should instead be focusing on developing non-meter monitoring systems that will simply help customers keep track of their energy usage. Some recent startups like Greenbox are already offering these kinds of services.
But by the end of the night, it was clear that there are more questions than answers when it comes to getting into the smart-meter business. Although growing at a rapid pace, the use of the technology is still relatively new, but priority action plans were recently developed by the National Institute of Standards and Technology to help standardize the grid’s development. The business implications of the grid are still unknown, but businesspeople and consumers alike can look forward to bright things from this market in the years to come.