Saturday, May 30, 2009

Google beats us to the punch

I've been working with a friend of a proposal to put power monitors into peoples houses and make their power usage figures available in (close to) real time. Guess what Google has beaten us to the punch, their development is so un-cannily similar to what we were thinking about that it's scary. Their going green initiative links smart meters to a google charting solution that shows domestic consumers exactly what power they've been using.

This is interesting in a number of ways

1) Smart meters are being rolled out across Australia. Energy providers will be able to monitor and bill usage based on 30 minute blocks, but we're not sure what technology will be available to consumers to see their usage.

2) Google's initiative would/could/should work here, but are they planning to do it?

3) The core of our idea was very similar to Google's but we wanted to go beyond the smart meter, and look and individual device usage. That option is still wide open.

The core of our study was how households would change their usage when they could see where the power was going. That option is still wide open, we just need to find the right partner, and it looks as though that partner could be google.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Sustainable Energy

Yesterday I attended the Innovation in Renewable Energies Expert Panel, put on as part of the Innovation in Ballarat festival. The panel discussion included specialists in wind, solar, and geothermal power generation, and introduced me to Breaze a local initiative around climate change.

I took away a number of key points

1) The cheapest way to get a more sustainable energy system is to reduce power use
2) Customers like to buy things (solar panels etc), but they don't buy into the idea of being more efficient - you can't show that to your friends and neighbours.

Taking these points together, there is a clear market for in-house power usage monitoring equipment, and we need to link that equipment to attractive outputs so the householder can 'show off' their savings and educate themselves and others about power use.

In Australia this education process would be easier as we're already pushing serious water restrictions. There's a big campaign around using 155L of water/person/day. We need a similar process for power usage.

One really simple approach would be making an in-home monitor mandatory for new homes and subsidising their retro fitting in existing homes. It would come with a visible monitor in the kitchen - preferable a nice big display (low power of course!). As soon as you turn something on, especially the big power users like clothes dryers, stoves etc you'd get a clear indication how much you're using. The meter needs to be visible, not hidden outside in a box on the wall. With that simple change, which would cost a deal less than pink batts, we'd get an easy reduction in our power requirements and a similar reduction in emissions.

The trick is to align that simple plan, with the big players political and commercial in order to get them to push it. We need an emissions trading scheme, so there's a strong financial incentive to reduce power use. Without that we're fighting an uphill battle. However, it's clear that will come, in time, it will come.

The figures
Australian homes use 28% of the generated power. It's relatively easy to reduce power needs by 20-30%. Therefore with some simple changes we could reduce our national power usage by 10% - that's the equivalent of 2-3 power stations that we just don't need any more.

It's very hard to store power, so we also need to look at the way in which balance our base and peak loads. The base load in Australia is around 5GWH (Gigawatt Hours), our peak usage is up at 10.5GWH - which we hit last summer when everyone's air con was running hard. To provide 10.5GWH of power, we need 10.5GW of power stations and that's double the normal day to day load. If we could smooth consumer's power usage again we could drastically reduce our need for new power stations, as well as reduce emissions.

Origin energy were also there and their green credentials look quite impressive. For instance they're already running a pilot in SA with 700 houses where they're selling power at a premium during high usage times of day.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

IP, Patents and investment

I've been heavily restricted in what I can write about as we don't have good IP protection in place yet, and without that any prior publication will prevent us getting patents in place, we didn't think that was an issue but for investors it's a show stopper. I've had a chance to speak to a few professionals about this and we now have a plan.

The most useful part of the exercise is a strong identification of where our IP value is - yes what we're doing is unique/novel etc, but a great deal of our technology is already out there. So we can make public those parts of what we're doing without risk. The trick is to identify exactly what is our unique technology - and that process has now been done, we have a clear idea of what we need to protect today.

Initially we were happy to go forward without getting patents. That was true for a number of reasons - the main one being how hard they are to enforce, also the need for others to build on our foundations - we don't want to scare off partners and developers. Realistically not having a patent will not affect our bottom line 1c in the short term. However, without patents in progress our likelihood of investment is much reduced, so we're going to have to go round the loop again.

Based on professional advice, our current thinking is as followss :-

1) Use www.google.com/patents for our searching, why pay for a professional to do that for us?
2) Base our patent submission format from 'good' patents on google. By submitting ourselves the cost is trivial, but of course there's a good chance that our application will be less than perfect. By basing our format on an existing patent from a top notch company, say Apple we should at least have a reasonable patent application.
3) Accepting that our patents may be less than perfect, any investor willing to take the risk, will then have to do due diligence on our submissions. We (they) have 12 months in which to tweak the submission to make it work.

The upshot of this is we can go public with some stuff, get the patent application under way without a large cash outlay, and sell the approach to potential investors. The cost for a professional Australia patent submission is $5-15K, going with this approach will cost us <$1k.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Future of Newspapers

Rupert Murdoch, who knows a great deal about making money and publishing is hoping that the 'Internet is malfunctioning' and he'll be able to charge for access to his online news websites. Hmmm the smart money would be with Murdoch, but I can't help thinking he's just plain wrong, deluded by his own disbelief that old media going to change so fundamentally.

The logic goes like this, running a website is expensive and drains money from the 'parent' news organisation. Media companies are currently taking the loss, but this will self correct as it is unsustainable, and then naturally the net will bow to market forces and start to charge for news. That logic is just so flawed, it works for Rupert becuase without his organisation will slowly have to move away from the print he loves, and that's exactly what will happen.

A major reason why newspapers have been so influential is that the barriers to entry were so high, having an opinion, access to contacts and the ability to write was useless unless you had deep pockets to run the presses. As the presses are now irrelevant the way in which we receive news is radically changing, and when everyone can be their own news organisation, even if only for their street, why do we need to pay for content? Especially as big players will continue to provide that content for free in return for our patronage.

My gut feeling is that the majority of internet news will remain free, if The Wall Street Journal does go to a pay model, it will only suceed in the short term. Over time its natural (read older) reader base will diminish, this is a great opportunity for others to jump in - maybe The Guardian which has already shown that it understands new media really well.