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Innovation Economy

Mass. start-ups explore the more efficient side of clean tech

On a chilly night just before Thanksgiving, I hopped into the back seat of a Ford Escape and went for a ride around Belmont. On the car’s roof was a sleek shell case for sports gear. But there were holes cut in the left and right sides of the case, and instead of skis, a pair of thermal imaging cameras were stashed inside.

The cameras were designed to take pictures of homes on either side of the car as we roamed the streets of Belmont — pictures of heat seeping out from windows, eaves, and inadequately insulated walls. Rather than Google’s StreetView, this was what you might call HeatView. From the front seat, Brad Harkavy, chief operating officer of Sagewell, the Woburn company that operates the car, told me the company could collect thermal images of more than 10,000 homes a night.

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Sagewell is just one of a handful of Massachusetts companies developing software to assess energy use, and ideally help reduce it. While Sagewell targets consumers, using the images it collects to help homeowners prioritize energy-saving upgrades and find contractors to perform them, others target commercial buildings or architects designing new structures. And at a moment when investors (and politicians) seem tapped out on supporting ambitious new energy technologies — remember Evergreen Solar, Konarka Technologies, and A123 Systems? — start-ups promoting energy efficiency suddenly have more luster than ever.

“We’ve seen a bunch of clean energy companies that were really capital-intensive, and relied on government investments,” says Harkavy. “The focus now is on creating companies that can figure out how to make money.”

Raising $100 million and dedicating 10 years to creating a better wind turbine or solar panel is a tough task right now. Raising a couple million to create a new software product that can be sold profitably in a year or two is more realistic — and many of these energy efficiency start-ups are doing just that.

Sagewell hasn’t raised any outside funding yet. Unlike Google StreetView, which displays pictures of homes to anyone who punches in an address, the only people who have access to the thermal images are the homeowners. The company makes money by referring them to insulation installers and window replacement companies, which pay Sagewell a fee.

It also collects data that could be useful to utilities or others that market energy-related products and services to homeowners. “We have a couple of years of actual data about which homeowners are more likely to make improvements,” says Sagewell chief executive Pasi Miettinen. “We might see two buildings that have the exact same insulation needs, but one owner may be more likely to actually invest in an improvement.” That’s valuable information.

So far, Sagewell has taken pictures of more than 400,000 homes around the country — including mine. I can say that it’s one thing to be pitched on the abstract advantages of sealing cracks and insulating your walls, but it’s much more motivating to see a picture taken at 1 a.m. showing precious heat spilling into the neighborhood. Cambridge-based Essess also has a fleet of cars that do thermal imaging; Essess raised $6 million earlier this year.

MyEnergy’s website invites homeowners to enter information about their electrical, gas, and water accounts so they can compare their spending to that of friends and neighbors. “We hope it encourages people to look for behavioral savings, like programming your thermostat or running your dishwasher at night, and also making physical changes, like changing to compact fluorescent bulbs,” says chief executive Ben Bixby. “Between those two kinds of changes, the average person saves more than $100 a year on their utility bills once they start using the site.” The Boston start-up has a dozen employees and has raised about $4 million.

Retroficiency, in Cambridge, has raised $3.3 million for software that helps evaluate opportunities to make commercial buildings more energy efficient, without sending an expert auditor to examine light fixtures and air conditioning units. “It’d take every auditor we have in the US 22 years to evaluate every commercial building,” says cofounder Bennett Fisher. Retroficiency’s Web-based software lets property owners enter information about a building’s size, occupancy hours, and usage (is it a warehouse or an office?), and get suggestions about energy efficiency measures that would have the greatest impact.

Another Cambridge company, Ekotrope, has developed software that makes suggestions to architects as they design new buildings. Choosing a different window size, wall thickness, or furnace can have major impact on the cost of heating or cooling a new building, says Ekotrope founder Ziv Rozenbloom. “We can compare the energy performance of thousands of options, and look at both the upfront expense as well as the ongoing operating expense,” Rozenbloom says.

Promoting energy efficiency initiatives might not be the most glamorous strain of clean-tech innovation in Boston, where you can find start-ups working on wireless electricity, batteries that use molten metal to store power, and a new generation of nuclear reactors. But they may contribute more than sexier technologies when it comes to helping curtail energy use and obviating the need for new power plants, say Rob Day, a partner at Boston investment firm Black Coral Capital.

“If you wait for the next breakthrough generating technology to be perfected and rolled out, it’ll be too late,” says Day, referring to the impact carbon dioxide emissions have on the environment. “But today, we have real solutions that already work for billions of square feet of space that can be made more energy efficient.”

Some architects, homeowners, and commercial landlords are already hunting for ways to cut energy consumption. But the key to success for this crop of software start-ups — and the key to curbing our need for new generating capacity — will be getting the mainstream to care, and spend money.

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com. Follow him on Twitter @Scott.Kirsner.

Correction: Because of incomplete information provided to the Globe, an earlier version of this column did not include the full amount of money raised by the start-up Retroficiency. The total is $3.3 million.

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