Set to launch next week, Microsoft's Hohm , is a Web site designed to help users monitor, and hopefully reduce, their energy consumption.
Not only will the service keep tabs on consumers' electricity and gas use during a given month, but it will also offer tips for lowering overall consumption (and energy bills). Propane and fuel oil monitoring will be available upon launch as well, and a water consumption meter will be added to the service later. Next year, Microsoft hopes to hone Hohm even further, working with thermostat makers and "smart plug" manufacturers to enable even more specific data monitoring.
If the Hohm service sounds familiar, it should. It's a little like the much-hyped Google PowerMeter , though the two services take different paths to a similar end. PowerMeter, which is still in testing with a handful of utility partners, exists as a secure widget in iGoogle and communicates with smart meters installed in the home, gathering and displaying in near real time a user's energy consumption. Around 40 million smart meters are already installed worldwide, and that number is poised to surge, perhaps by 100 million, in the next few years.
But Microsoft isn't waiting around. Hohm will gather data on users energy consumption directly from utilities, creating a standardized way of transferring usage data securely and allowing Hohm access to data PowerMeter won't have. Hohm works from a set of algorithms developed by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the Department of Energy that help pre-calculate what a users energy consumption should be based on geographical location and a minimum amount of information from the user (size of home, what kinds of appliances are present, etc.). But users have the option of answering 200 other questions that help Hohm paint a complete energy picture of the user's existence.
Microsoft hopes that by establishing the standards by which utilities transfer data to Hohm, makers of smart meters will adopt the same data formats, creating a single language between smart meters, utility companies, and Hohm. If successful, it could gain the upper-hand on PowerMeter. There is also the possibility that Hohm, and its partnerships with utilities, will be able to help blunt the daily peaks in energy consumption that can be costly for producers and consumers alike. That's a service utilities might pay for, an important difference since the site will be free for consumers to use. But Microsoft only has four utilities on board for next week's launch, and growing the number of participating power companies will be key to Hohm's success.
Like most cloud computing applications, Hohm's analytics and energy saving recommendations should only improve over time. Certain challenges still exist; getting every independent utility working on the same system may be difficult, and if electricity deployment methods trend toward microgrids  as some think they may, the advantage may swing to PowerMeter's smart meter monitoring. Regardless of who wins this round of the epic Microsoft-Google bout, the common end is encouraging: in this case more knowledge will equal less power consumption. It's as simple as that.
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