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A house that thinks

The high-tech networks that Reliant Energy is installing in the homes of its 1.8 million customers will help them save electricity.

By Todd Woody, senior editor
November 19, 2008: 10:41 AM ET

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Mark Jacobs, the chief executive of Reliant Energy, is looking to save his company and consumers money on electricity costs.
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(Fortune Magazine) -- Inside a white-brick house nestled in Houston's leafy Montrose neighborhood, a gray handheld video display sits on the living room coffee table. But this is no ordinary remote control. Called the Insight and made by Tendril, a Boulder startup, the device communicates wirelessly with the home's utility meter, letting you track real-time information about the cost of the electricity you consume.

The house is actually a demonstration project set up by Reliant Energy (RRI, Fortune 500), a reseller of electricity with $12 billion a year in sales. Glen Stancil, Reliant's vice president for smart energy R&D, taps the Insight's screen. "Right now we're spending $1.40 per hour," he says, noting that the electricity prices and usage are updated every ten seconds. (Customers can also access the same data on the web or their iPhones.)

Stancil presses another button. "The bill so far is $86, and for the month it looks like it's headed to $367," he says. The Insight system also warns that you'll fork over another $100 this month if you crank up the air conditioner a couple of notches. So keep your hands off the thermostat.

That's just the kind of behavior that Reliant Energy CEO Mark Jacobs would like to see. Until now, Reliant has made its money by entering contracts with utilities for a fixed amount of power at a fixed price and then reselling it to its 1.8 million customers. If demand unexpectedly soars on a hot afternoon as everyone turns up the air conditioning, Reliant often must buy extra power on the spot market, where prices can spike as much as 60%.

That cuts into profits. "It's like running a beachfront hotel, charging the same room rate all year round, and then building more rooms to guarantee that everyone has a room on the busiest weekends," says Jacobs.

In November, Reliant started installing the Insight in homes, which means it will be able to pass along those high spot prices to its customers, or better yet, in sweltering Texas, let customers buy a month's worth of cool at a set price - say, 72 degrees for $200 or 74 degrees for $160.

The Insight offers another advantage - Jacobs believes it will encourage his customers to cut back on electric use and save money. "What if you knew you could run your clothes dryer at five o'clock, and it would cost $3," says Jacobs, "or you could wait until eight o'clock at night, and it would be only a dollar?"

Reliant operates in a competitive, deregulated electricity market. If homeowners get cool technology that helps them avoid the unpleasant surprise of a big electric bill, Jacobs believes Reliant will retain more customers. And then there's the green angle. "We as an industry are the single largest emitter of greenhouse gas, and our goal is to help our customers use less, spend less, and emit less," says Jacobs.

For Jacobs, a 46-year-old Goldman Sachs (GS, Fortune 500) veteran, smart energy technology is just the wedge to shake up what he calls "an industry in the Dark Ages" while opening new markets for his company, whose stock has been walloped by the one-two punch of Houston's Hurricane Ike and the credit crunch.

Hurdles, however, remain. Will consumers already suffering from information overload want to obsessively monitor their electricity habit? Will a sweating Houstonite on a 104-degree day say to hell with the cost and crank up the AC anyway? Jacobs isn't worried. He believes nothing influences behavior better than knowing the true price of what you're buying.  To top of page

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