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With Thread, Nest Targets Wireless Energy Devices

— July 29, 2014

It’s been a busy year for Palo Alto, California-based Nest.  In January, the firm was acquired by Google.  Last month, Nest announced that it would acquire Dropcam, which offers a Wi-Fi-enabled portable camera that pairs with a cloud-based video monitoring service.  Days later, the company launched the Nest Developer Program, enrolling early partners Mercedes-Benz, LIFX, Whirlpool, and Jawbone.

More recently, Nest introduced Thread, a personal area network (PAN) specification for device interconnectivity.  This specification will be regulated by the Thread Group, of which Chris Boross of Nest will be president.  Competing with other wireless specifications such as ZigBee, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth Smart, Thread is a low-power mesh-based solution that follows the IEEE 802.15.4 and IPv6 standards.

Much of the coverage (see here and here) of the Nest/Thread announcement has asked whether we really need another standard for networking in-home devices.  Thread, though, has some advantages over Wi-Fi and Bluetooth.  Wi-Fi uses a lot of power, which makes it impractical for low-power battery-operated devices such as thermostats or smoke alarms.  Bluetooth Smart is already installed in most smartphones and is low power, but its range is limited.  ZigBee has encountered problems with vendors making proprietary adjustments to the specification, making it impossible or very difficult for devices to interoperate.

Looking for Options

The burgeoning number of entrants in the networking protocol space signals increased competition and perceived high value to be found in the market for connected devices.  For retail consumers, this means better products at lower prices that are easier to integrate into their connected life schema.

Unfortunately, for utilities looking to integrate energy-saving devices such as smart thermostats and lighting controls into their energy efficiency and demand response programs, multiple network protocol alliances present problems.  In order to implement these programs, utilities are subject to numerous technology restrictions and standards from state public utilities commissions or regional independent system operators.  OpenADR and ZigBee Smart Energy Profile are among these standards, and the further that protocol competition pushes the retail device market away from these, the narrower the options will be for utilities.

Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) has engaged in extensive research on different models of smart thermostats, hoping to identify those that are easy to use and will yield a stronger customer experience (as well as meet energy efficiency and curtailment goals).  However, any model that the utility looks at is subject to a number of technical requirements.  Since these are set by regulating bodies, it’s unlikely that requirements will remain in stride with developments driven in the commercial market.  As it is, the economics of utility deployments are not always favorable to vendors, particularly in programs where more than one thermostat option is offered and sales volumes are uncertain.  It remains to be seen whether vendors will offer devices and platforms that can be used by the organizations that will require them to meet energy efficiency directives and load curtailment needs.

 

Emerging Broadband Technology Offers New Connectivity for Utilities

— July 15, 2014

In the battle for smart grid communications standards, yet another contender is now on the horizon, promising ultra fast data speeds over existing copper wires.  And while telephone companies (telcos) are the primary target market for the G.Fast standard, chipset developer Sckipio believes that the standard will be attractive to utilities for smart grid applications, in addition to broadband connectivity and over-the-top applications like video.

Designed to help telcos cost-effectively compete with cable broadband and very expensive fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) connectivity, G.Fast employs vectoring technology to eliminate interference (cross-talk) between multiple wire pairs in a single copper cable.  The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) instituted the standard in 2010, and recent field trials have shown promising results.

Belgacom has trialed the standard with 3,000 customers and reported a nearly four-fold increase in access speeds over copper.  This makes the technology a reasonable alternative to FTTH, particularly in urban areas with extensive copper infrastructure already in place.  In multi-dwelling units with extensive in-wall phone lines, the use of existing copper lines represents enormous cost-saving, as well as a speed-to-market advantage over running new fiber.

Coming Soon

G.fast is designed for use in the last-mile – in practice, over distances of less than 250 meters.  This allows fiber to reach as far as the basement of an apartment block, for example, eliminating the need to rewire the whole building and still allowing a notable acceleration in access speeds.  G.fast requires a short loop (less than 250 meters) and operates at higher frequencies than digital subscriber line transmissions, which also run over existing copper wires, increasing the risk of cross-talk unless the new vectoring technology is employed.

Sckipio says it has seen interest in Europe, North America, and Asia Pacific, and expects to see telco deployment begin in earnest in 2015.

Tel Aviv, Israel-based Sckipio was founded in 2012, and in December 2013 announced a $10 million venture capital round with Gemini Israel Ventures, Genesis Partners, Amiti Capital, and Aviv Ventures.  The company  is building ultra high-speed G.fast broadband modem semiconductors.

The G.fast standard is still working its way through ITU approval, and a few technical hurdles remain:  Powering the equipment and the unbundling of sub-loops is something that different countries are treating differently.

G.fast represents a great leap forward for telcos struggling with legacy copper networks.  As a viable alternative for utilities seeking connectivity for smart grid applications, it is likely still a couple of years out.  Given its very high data transfer speeds, however, it may well present a new alternative for utilities needing visibility and control at the grid edge — while also providing telephone companies with an opportunity to ramp up their business in the utility/smart grid vertical.

 

Blackout-Plagued India Moves toward a Smarter Grid

— July 10, 2014

Utilities in India continue to take concrete steps toward upgrading to a smarter power grid that in the last few years has suffered massive blackouts.  Though the steps are not yet widespread, they show progress toward a more modern and stable grid.

Within a 2-week span, two utilities announced contract awards for new meters.  The largest announcement came when Bangalore Electricity Supply Company ordered 1.7 million digital smart meters from Landis+Gyr.  The meters are to be delivered over the next 12 months to Bangalore Electric, which provides power to the city of Bangalore and eight districts in the state of Karnataka, population 64 million.  The second recent announcement came when West Bengal State Electricity Distribution Company Limited ordered more than 1 million digital smart meters from Landis+Gyr.  Headquartered in Kolkata, the utility manages electricity distribution for 96% of the state of West Bengal, population 90.3 million.  West Bengal has been at the forefront of smart metering in India, having begun upgrading devices in 2009.  This deal follows an order for 1.5 million meters from Landis+Gyr, which were deployed last year.

Progress, Perhaps

In a separate deal, Essel Utilities will deploy an unusual retrofit meter solution.  The utility will install a module, made by local metering company Aquameas, that contains a radio unit from Cyan Holdings called the CyLec 865 MHz RF device.  A total of 5,000 of these units will be attached to existing meters.  The retrofit installations are to take place in the city of Muzaffarpur, in the state of Bihar, starting late in the fourth quarter of 2014.

Earlier moves made by Indian utilities and smart grid vendors indicate that the market is progressing.  Tata Power Delhi was the first utility in India to launch an automated demand response project with smart meters.  The project in the nation’s capital is for commercial and industrial customers that can take advantage of the latest technology.  Approximately 250 customers are involved, with the potential of helping shed loads totaling 20 MW.  Project partners include IBM, Honeywell, and Landis+Gyr.  Washington state-based meter provider Itron has made India a priority for its smart metering efforts, opening a lab last year to highlight its solutions for the Indian market, where it has also been active in supplying advanced water meters.

India still has a long way to go to reach its goals of a more modern electric grid that could eventually involve some 130 million meters.  But utilities are moving ahead with projects and pilots that could bring the country’s power grid closer to the 21st century.

 

Utilities Respond to EV-Induced Grid Pressure

— June 12, 2014

Going green in one way often creates new energy use – or carbon emissions – in other ways.  When you opt out of paper mail in favor of email, you generate Internet data that must be processed and stored (which requires a data center, something that is heavy in both space and energy use).  It’s also the case with electric vehicles (EVs); you might never insert a card at the pump again, but you’ll use more electricity (and see a spike in your energy bill).  Likewise, with increased adoption of EVs, more generation will be required and distribution utilities will increasingly experience pressure on the electrical grid.

Recently, Itron and ClipperCreek announced the launch of their utility-connected charging station for EVs, the CS-40-SG2.  Equipped with a revenue-grade submeter that communicates specific EV charging information to the utility, the charging station also includes ZigBee Smart Energy Profile 1.1 and cellular and Wi-Fi-enabled communications technologies that provide access to smart grid capabilities such as remote monitoring and demand response (DR).

Stress Response

Utilities that anticipate (or are already experiencing) increased EV adoption are eager to shift peak electricity use in order to maintain efficiency in generation resource planning and to better manage new peaks.  This technology allows the utility to remotely monitor and control residential charging, as well as collect interval data that can help guide future planning and action.  Similarly, a smart grid-enabled submeter allows the utility to implement DR and time-of-use rates to curb electricity use for charging.

Another problem associated with EV charging in heavy penetration areas is transformer overload.  Associated with uncoordinated residential charging of EVs, this can cause both stress and congestion on the local distribution network.  Extending the utility’s monitoring capability and control to the point of use can limit the impact of responding to grid stress to the point of use or the individual charger.

It goes (almost) without saying that for this technology to be effective, the utility must already have a basic smart grid infrastructure that allows for DR functionality and grid monitoring, as well as an understanding of current and future effects of increased EV penetration.  Many utilities in the United States are updating their aging infrastructures to accommodate EVs and distributed generation.  However, the small number of existing state and federal grants for EV supply equipment suggests a sluggishness that could be due to uncertainty as to the current effects and how to best manage residential EV charging.  But as demand for EV charging resources grows, so will the need for state public utilities commissions and utilities to adapt.  The ClipperCreek/Itron charging station will be the first of many tools developed to smooth this process.

 

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