Today, Internet-of-Things devices require individual connections to a home network. That’s part of what makes them hard to manage, not to mention unsecure. But it also allows so-called “smart” devices to be used as dumb ones; the user can always opt out of the wireless features of a kettle or a refrigerator and just brew tea or chill food like usual. But once a load disaggregation hub of Sense’s ilk is installed, basic identification, usage, and data reporting could eventually be accomplished via the electric line itself, and without the consumer even knowing.
I asked my Georgia Tech colleague Justin Romberg, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and an expert in digital signal processing to weigh in. If an ordinary appliance like a blender or a razor wanted to cooperate with a power meter, he explains, it could do so easily by sending a predetermined electrical pulse on the line to signal power cycles or even secondary information about what it’s doing.
It’s hypothetical and would take years to roll out, but if standardized and installed in newly manufactured appliances, the result could be made compatible with a local hub like Sense or, via the electrical main, a remote one elsewhere on the grid from the very outset—chattering away, unavoidably and in secret about how its owner uses it.
So much for “nonintrusive” load monitoring.
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Of course, technology companies change their policies all the time, and as a venture-backed company in today’s technology marketplace, success likely means acquisition. On this front, Sense’s financial structure might distance the company from the data-greediness of traditional technology startups. In September, Sense Labs closed a $14 million Series A, led by two energy-sector venture firms focused on new terrain for large, traditional companies. One is Royal Dutch Shell’s venture arm, and the other, Energy Impact Partners, is an investment fund capitalized entirely by utility companies. Smart utility meters, which automate billing and help power companies better match supply to demand, have increased consumer suspicion of the monopoly utilities that serve them.
Energy Impact Partners’s managing director, Lindsay Luger, tells me that her fund’s investors want better ways to engage with customers. Homeowners may not care much about their utility companies, but they care about their homes a lot; for most Americans, a home is their most valuable asset. A product like Sense might allow energy businesses to give people new insights into sustainability, monitoring, and automation in their homes. Many utilities are already attempting to facilitate this by subsidizing Nest thermostats, and Sense monitors might soon follow suit.