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Triangle Smart Grid startup racks up plaudits

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A Triangle-bred Smart Grid concept nabbed a $100,000 award from General Electric this morning, proving again that the Smart Grid craze isn't about to fade any time soon.

Durham-based PlotWatt, a six-employee company founded in 2008, was one of five cash prize Innovation Award winners announced this morning in GE's Ecomagination Challenge.

The recognition from a global conglomerate like GE represents a high-profile validation of PlotWatt's energy-efficiency technology, but it's just a fraction of the $1 million in venture capital PlotWatt scored in February.

The company's product, a web-based portal called Energy Dashboard, reputedly can save households 20 percent on their electricity bill. Even more intriguing: PlotWatt's business model calls for distributing the product to homeowners for free, but more on that below.

PlotWatt's technology has received other help along the way, in the form of a $40,000 grant from the N.C. Green Business Fund in 2009, and about $8,000 in 2008 from Duke University's Start-Up Challenge.

The young company, whose employees range in age from 21 to 35, is now looking to hire four software engineers.

The Energy Dashboard tells homeowners how much electricity their appliances are consuming, and offers suggestions -- such as maintenance, repairs, upgrades, etc. -- to cut energy waste.

What makes PlotWatt different from other real-time energy monitors is that the company doesn't install costly equipment on water heaters, refrigerators and other appliances.

Instead, PlotWatt interprets electricity running through the utility meter to determine which appliance is drawing the load.

"We've replaced all those sensors with algorithmic sophistication, with math," said PlotWatt co-founder and CEO Luke Fishback. "We've solved this very tricky disaggregation-of-energy-data problem."

The way Fishback explains it, each appliance has its own way of consuming electricity in a decipherable pattern.

"For each appliance, we understand how it's performing," said Fishback, an electrical engineer who says he previously worked as an aerospace systems engineer at Lockheed Martin. "We understand how much money you'd save if you replaced it with a different model."

Several hundred people in two dozen states are testing the Energy Dashboard, he said. The company is accepting applications on its web site.

Some of the product testers are participating in a pilot project run by an electric utility in North Carolina, but Fishback said he couldn't disclose details.

Progress Energy and Duke Energy are not testing the product, spokesmen at the companies said.

Fishback said that homeowners can save about 20 percent using Energy Dashboard -- if they follow the advice dispensed by the program, which could require spending money.

The Energy Dashboard advice is provided to homeowners for free.

The reason: PlotWatt hopes to make its money from the service providers and vendors who would sell their wares to Energy Dashboard customers.

It would theoretically work this way: Energy Dashboard would send a signal to a home user to conduct annual HVAC maintenance, or replace AC filters, or take some other measure.

The system would then direct the homeowner to businesses that pay PlotWatt to be listed for referrals.

The Energy Detective technology sends a time-stamped household power-consumption reading to PlotWatt at last once every minute.

"A dishwasher has a distinct way of using energy that doesn't look like a clothes washer or a clothes dryer," Fishback said.

Alas, the Energy Dashboard won't work with a conventional utility meter. It requires an upgrade so that the usage information can be transmitted to PlotWatt.

That means that homeowners have to purchase an electronic cuff or gateway to install at their meter. The cost: at least $200.

PlotWatt's web site even refers customers to a compatible product, the Energy Detective.

Professional installation is recommended, entailing another extra expense.

PlotWatt may not be the answer to all homeowners, but the GE cash award demonstrates the continuing fascination in Smart Grids and energy-related technology.

The other four winners of the GE $100,000 prize were:

- E.quinox, a British student-run initiative to bring off-the-grid solar power to developing countries.

- Pythagoras Solar, a California company that makes solar pholotaic windows.

- Suntulit, a California maker of a self-adjusting AC system that responds to real-time room conditions, such as temperature and number of occupants.

- Xergy, a Delaware concern that has designed advanced refrigeration compressors that use fuel cells instead of motors and refrigerants.

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About the blogger

John Murawski has been a full-time newspaper reporter since 1991, with stints at Legal Times and The Chronicle of Philanthropy (both in Washington, DC), The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Palm Beach Post (in South Florida) before arriving at the N&O in December 2004. At the N&O he covers energy (nuclear, coal, renewable, efficiency), hydraulic fracturing (or "fracking"), public utilities and health care. His beat includes PSNC Energy, Piedmont Natural Gas, Duke Energy Progress, PowerSecure International, GlaxoSmithKline, Merck, Novo Nordisk, Pfizer, Biogen Idec and others. He has also contributed more than 30 book reviews on topics spanning botany, history, science and religion. You can reach him at 919-829-8932 or e-mail him.