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Does your water heater need a cell phone? Can your thermostat dial out for setting instructions? Perhaps not today, but the day is coming when homeowners and small businesses will have 3G-cellular sensors  attached to their major appliances that wirelessly connect them to a centralized management service provided by Consert.

Consert isn’t your typical technology solution or managed service provider. Based in Raleigh, N.C., this IBM business partner has spent the last several years adapting off-the-shelf IBM technologies into a holistic system that manages power consumptions in individual homes and small businesses, while providing operational intelligence to utilities.

The idea is elegantly simple: By providing consumers with tools to better manage and monitor their power consumption, they can make adjustments in electrical usage to save money. By aggregating that data into actionable intelligence, Consert can help utilities better plan and manage their electricity generation distribution.

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“We’re convinced that consumers can save 10 to 15 percent right off the top with a minimal change in their lifestyle by eliminating ghost consumption,” says Joel Webb, vice president of business development at Consert. Those ghosts are appliances, electronics and other devices that are always sipping electricity even when not in use.

Consert is just one of several initiatives across the country to infuse technology into power generation and management. Microsoft last week unveiled Hohm, an online tool that helps consumers calculate and plan their electricity consumption. Google has its own version called PowerMeter. And Cisco Systems is teaming up with several utilities across the country for its Smart Grid initiative, which aims to put more IP-based power into the intelligence that manages electrical power networks.

Consert is a bit different in that it’s targeting home and small business electrical consumers with a service that’s paid for by their local utility. Its system, which is a combination of a managed service and software-as-a-service offering, is built on IBM Websphere middleware and X series servers, and a spattering of third-party components. The cost of the service to the utility is substantial, about half the cost of a 500-kilowatt gas-fired generation plant. The cost savings is equally substantial—the full cost of building and operating that same plant.

“We’re essentially putting more power back into the system by managing demand,” Webb says.

The need for energy conservation and management systems is substantial. The cost of building new power generation and distribution systems is enormous and riddled with environmental, regulatory and community hurdles. Add to those obstacles the continued problem of oil and gas supply, and the need for doing more with less becomes transparently clear.

“We’re seeing by 2050 that 70 percent of our population will live in cities. Do our cities have the infrastructure to support the population?” asks Joann Duquid, vice president of Economic Stimulus and Industry Marketing at IBM. “We must get smarter. We have the technology. We just have to integrate it and make it work.”