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Could information be the ultimate renewable energy source?

Perhaps. According to Jennifer Pulliam, director of innovation for electricity retailer TXU Energy, data is one of the most exciting opportunities in the smart grid — a much-needed upgrade to our power infrastructure driven by information technology.

Data, Pulliam told me, allows customers to understand how they use energy — which in turn guides them to pick the best option from a broad menu of energy efficiency and pricing options that TXU has been working to cultivate in order to stay competitive in the deregulated Texas electricity market.

Of course, making energy use data interesting and engaging is part of the challenge of selling consumers on the power of data. But opportunities in data go far beyond just what’s presented to consumers.

Data was the biggest theme at VentureBeat’s GreenBeat conference last year. Software and services that will enable smart-grid analytics “will represent one of the largest growth opportunities in the utility sector over the next few years,” according to Pike Research. The market  — with contenders from IBM to Accenture to Siemens to Itron — will balloon from a size of $356 million last year to $4.2 billion in annual revenues by 2015.

The use of data to yield energy savings is also core to many of the most promising segments of the energy efficiency market, from greening data centers to better building controls. Not coincidentally, all three sectors are expected to do well this year.

Redwood Systems and SynapSense use sensors to find energy inefficiencies in energy-hogging data centers, while JouleX offers building controls  monitoring and analytics. The latter two companies have attracted investment from GE.

Weather will be a huge part of the opportunity, too, with companies like Genscape and even Google looking to use weather data to play in energy markets. One startup, Onsemble, wants to use weather and sensors atop wind turbines to produce more accurate weather forecasts. Better accuracy in weather forecasts are then used by building controls data-crunchers and analyzing software to help users save money on their energy bills.

Building controls players like BuildingIQ, for example, loop in weather forecasts and past energy use to predict a building’s energy needs — and recommend actions to offset them, such as pre-cooling a building in the morning, when load is lighter and electricity prices cheaper, say on a day expected to get hot in the afternoon. SCI recently nabbed $15.6 million for itsbuilding predictive analytics.

Of course, it’s not just companies that can get hooked on data. Players like Motorola’s 4home, Verizon, Tendril and Intel are betting that their engaging displays will win over consumers and get them to adopt home energy and security management systems. Consumers love raw weather data too — smart thermostat maker Ecobee’s CEO Stuart Townsend told me today at the Smart Energy Summit in Austin that it’s one of users’ favorite features in home energy displays.

If data can capture energy consumers’ imaginations, then perhaps it can power much-needed change across the sector.

[Image via Flickr/LaMenta3]

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