Silicon Valley played host this week for the Department of Energy’s “Apps for Energy” awards presentation. Five teams came away with $75,000 in prize money. Their winning software apps could turn into profitable businesses in a vacuum left by the hasty exits of Microsoft and Google.

Remember Microsoft Hohm and Google Powermeter? In 2009 they were those companies’ answers to the question, “Who will be the Microsoft and Google of the smart grid?”

A year later, both companies pulled out of the market for apps that analyze the data gathered from smart meters. One reason: It would be years before utilities made interval data available to customers in a standardized format.

Then something amazing happened. In the fall of 2011 the first Chief Technology Officer of the United States called for utilities to give customers access to their data. He described a big, green button on the utility’s web site that would facilitate the data download to customers’ PCs.

Stakeholders quickly hammered out a data standard, and by early 2012 a few big utilities had signed up to be the first with a functioning Green Button on their web sites. “As soon as the first Green Buttons were launched, the development community responded — and eight seconds later, there were apps available to use that data,” says Todd Park, who took over as United States CTO in March.

Leafully App for Energy Green Button Screen Shot
Leafully helps utility customers visualize their actions as a variety of units, such as the number of trees needed to offset the carbon emissions from a certain decision that uses more energy.

The Department of Energy announced an “Apps for Energy” contest with $100,000 in prizes for the best apps that put Green Button data to good use. Fifty-seven teams entered. On May 22, at the ConnectivityWeek smart grid conference in Silicon Valley, DOE Assistant Secretary Patricia Hoffman announced the winners.

Timothy Edgar and Nathan Jhaveri of Seattle won the top prize and $30,000 for their app, Leafully. I published a story about Leafully on my Seattle Post-Intelligencer Energy Blog with photos and screen shots.

Second prize went to Melon, which combines Green Button data with parcel information to simplify the process of obtaining an EPA Energy Star benchmark for commercial buildings.

Third prize: Zerofootprint’s VELObill, which makes it easier for utility customers to view their energy usage and create an energy saving action plan.

Two more prizes went to the best student apps. The Wotz app, submitted by a team from the University of California, Irvine, provides games based on the shape of energy consumption curves. The Budget it Yourself app is a collaborative project from a team of students at Case Western Reserve University and the Cleveland Institute of Art. It helps users track their energy usage and set energy-savings goals.

There are as many revenue models as there are app ideas, although none of the winners specified how they might make money or whether they would pursue funding.

Bill Reichert, Garage Technology Ventures (left) and Todd Park, U.S. CTO.
Bill Reichert, Garage Technology Ventures (left) and Todd Park, United States CTO, discuss the winning apps.

“One obvious path to monetization is to recommend ways to improve the energy efficiency of your home, which tends to lead to vendors, and that tends to lead to economics,” says Bill Reichert, Managing Director of Garage Technology Ventures. An app maker with hundreds of thousands of users and has proven a way to monetize them could attract venture capital, he says.

Another potential funding source is to bypass the venture community and tap utilities as strategic investors as well as customers. Seattle City Light was a Microsoft launch partner when Hohm debuted. Hohm suggested energy efficiency measures linked to incentives available through Seattle City Light, such as rebates on energy efficient washing machines and ductless heat pumps. In the same way, an app like Leafully or VELObill could act in lieu of expensive campaigns to encourage customers to participate in those incentives.

One more set of prizes remain to be awarded on June 6, 2012. Two “Popular Choice Awards” and a “Peak Energy Award” will be announced, with prizes ranging from $4,000 to $8,000. DOE will also pay for up to three members of each winning team to travel to Washington, DC, to attend a recognition event and demonstrate their app.

UPDATE 13 June 2012:

The Energy Department announced on June 6 the Popular Choice winners for the “Apps for Energy” competition. VELObill, the winner of the public vote, will receive $8,000, while Innovative Solar Demand Response took second place and will be awarded $4,000.