The net is abuzz today with talk of Yello Strom, the German utility that reportedly takes smart grid technology and web integration to the max with its new Sparzahler meter — rivaling U.S. utilities that are just beginning to adopt green initiatives. But, on closer inspection, it’s simply the first to integrate a lot of features that debuted in the U.S.
For example, one of the Sparzahler’s celebrated features is that it’s the first European smart meter to give its customers access to Google PowerMeter — but there are already eight North American utilities that do the same. The other is that the company is developing an application that will let its smart meters tweet customers’ energy consumption. But Yello Strom isn’t the first to work on this idea either. Back in February, we reported on a startup called Tweet-a-Watt that also tweets energy data via a plug-in energy meter made by Zigbee. It makes sense that Yello Strom’s Twitter app is getting more attention than Tweet-a-Watt’s because it has the full weight of a utility behind it (and won’t require consumers to buy an additional gadget), but it’s not a revolutionary concept.
On top of that, how many people really want their energy consumption broadcast over Twitter? How many really want to constantly see how much power their friends are using? Yes, it sounds like a cool piece of technology (in a “look what we can do!” kind of way) but with Twitter’s niche traction, it’s a longshot that this use of the micro-blogging site will become a household norm in Germany or elsewhere. It might even seem a little random as a bonus feature — though, as Fast Company points out, it makes more sense for a utility in Germany’s deregulated energy market where companies have to constantly compete for customers.
Perhaps the biggest difference in the Yello Strom model is that it has to sell its smart meters to households for about $5.60 to $11.24 a month. In the U.S., most utilities are providing them to customers for free. Predictably, this has shrunk the scale of its roll out, with the utility reporting sales of 100 to 200 meters a day. When a U.S. utility like PG&E or Florida Power and Light deploys smart meters, it happens in the hundreds of thousands (and eventually the millions by 2012).
Yello Strom meters are also unique in that they use home broadband connections, as opposed to broader wireless networks operated here by companies like SmartSynch, Silver Spring Networks and the like. On one hand, this means faster data retrieval, on the other, home networks are more prone to outages and disruptions, so it’s a toss up. The one clear advantage is that hooking into home broadband will allow Yello Strom to continue innovating helpful, consumer-facing applications like the Twitter client to help regular people better understand their energy use and finances — and ultimately alter their habits. This won’t be impossible for American network providers, just not as quick and easy to implement.
So while excitement over Yello Strom and its business model is not completely unmerited, it would be hasty to declare Europe in the lead when it comes to the smart grid. After all, Google PowerMeter and Microsoft Hohm — perhaps the two most groundbreaking household energy management systems yet (which Yello Strom has pounced on) — are U.S. exports.