How Will You Get Smart Grid Services?

Will utilities deliver energy-saving services via smart meters, home area networks, the cloud or all of the above?

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When we get smart grid services from electric utilities, will home energy management products come in a package of our choosing—or will your utility specify what home networking systems can connect to its electric meter?

Most electric utilities are still very much in the pilot phases of their smart grid rollouts and plans, testing systems and services to offer their customers as ways—we hope—to save energy and money. Some utilities will be happy to slap two-way-communicating smart meters on homes and be done with it, while others may offer some form of in-house electronics that display energy usage information or even manage it.

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“What we’re seeing is utilities backing away from deep involvement in the home,” says Chris King, chief regulatory officer of Siemens’ eMeter business, which recently conducted a Greentech Media webinar on The Year Smart Grid 2.0 Becomes a Reality. “[Utilities are] interested in providing a smart meter, the interface to a gateway or an in-home display, but beyond that pretty much it would be up to the homeowner or business owner.”

But will homeowners have choices in the products they use to get that utility information? Will we be able to pick and choose among home area networking (HAN) systems and energy management systems to connect to that smart meter and receive data from the utility such as pricing information so we can run appliances at less expensive times?

Opinion on this in the smart grid world is somewhat split.

Stuart Lombard, founder and CEO of smart thermostat maker ecobee, says in that most utilities seem to be keying on model in which consumers will choose devices that can work with their smart meters. This would save electric utilities from the hassle of getting in a home and setting up networking equipment—and assuming responsibility for that gear.

Wannie Park, vice president of strategic partnerships of Ceiva Energy, which offers a real-time energy display in a digital photo frame for utility smart grid rollouts, believes it is more complex that that. “In the short run, they just don’t have the bandwidth to open it up to [any and all networking products],” he says. In the longer run, he says, a utility may have a few displays that it works with. Or utility customers may see a list of HAN and energy management devices that can work with its smart meter.

Every utility thinks about this slightly differently,” says Dennis Kyle, vice president of strategic and new market development at smart grid software company Tendril. Some will have a choice of five different thermostats that work with its smart meter, for example, while others will want to offer just one thermostat and one of everything else on an energy management network in the home.

“We’re going to see the connected home be successful, but we’re also going to see manufacturers coming out with stuff that won’t work with other products,” he says. Tendril’s aim is to offer utilities a platform that can work with myriad devices.

In Texas, where a deregulation has spawned a robust retail energy market and accelerated the pace of smart grid deployments, about 100 products, mostly thermostats and in-home displays, have been tested to work with smart meters and will be made available through Best Buy, according to King.

We could also see big service providers offer HAN services for large utility smart grid rollouts. ADT, Comcast, Verizon, Vivint, Alarm.com and soon AT&T offer security and connectivity packages of wireless home networked products, including some basic energy management.

Home Networking with Smart Grid Amping Up?

For most of the United States, it’s still very early on the smart grid timeline. Even in California, where millions of smart meters have been installed, few are actually deployed to offer energy-saving smart grid services such Time of Use pricing that varies throughout the day, depending in demand.

Pacific Gas & Electric, for example, which serves a large swath of California, says it has installed 8.9 million smart meters and has only 800,000 more to go. Yet the huge utility is just embarking on a pilot program using home area networking, set to launch in March and employing control company Control4’s EC-100 energy display and HAN software from Silver Spring Networks.

Initially, just 500 of PG&E’s customers and employees will get the device to test and see if it’s a viable in-home solution, and the utility will look at pricing plan options, comparing flat rates to smart and variable rates, for example, says Greg Snapper, PG&E spokesman. PG&E plans to support up to 5,000 customers with this capability by 2013.

Tendril has conducted successful pilots with San Diego Gas & Electric, resulting in a Biggest Energy Saver contest, using Tendril’s Connect platform of smart devices including the Tendril Transport (an IP gateway), Tendril SetPoint smart thermostats, Tendril smart outlet plugs and the Tendril Insight, an in-home display that communicates with networked smart devices and displays information and alerts about energy consumption, rates and cost of use. Tendril uses third-party hardware for the devices on its platform.

“Our focus is to give customers choice, convenience and control,” says SDG&E communications manager Erin Coller.

Skip the Smart Meter?

Another question to consider is whether some utilities will choose to send energy usage and pricing information to consumers over their own networks and smart meters, or make those services available over broadband Internet. A Green Button initiative among utilities and already in use by PG&E and SDG&E allow their customers Internet downloads of their energy usage by the hour, and is intended to spawn innovative energy monitoring and management apps. For security reasons, some utilities may choose to deliver smart grid data and services via the Internet rather than through smart meters.

“You really need both,” says King. “If you want real-time [usage] data, you need that right out of the meter. But most of the time you’re going to want data that has been processed, such as what your bill is going to look like,” and that could come from the Internet.

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