Getting Vertical: Smart Grid Focus

Various Forces Align to Forward the Smart Grid

By Paula Bernier, Executive Editor, IP Communications Magazines  |  October 01, 2010

This article originally appeared in the October 2010 issue of INTERNET TELEPHONY

The smart grid has gotten a lot of buzz and drawn a fair amount of dollars in recent months. Of course, the term smart grid means many things to many people. That’s because there are a lot of angles and players involved.

Just as the Internet brought together IT and telecom, so too is the smart grid bringing together different forces to build this new thing – a thing on which no one yet has an entirely firm handle.

In the case of the smart grid, there are various vendors and service providers both on the energy and network fronts coming together. Because there are a whole lot of players involved, and a lot of pieces required, to make smart grid a reality, there’s a need for standards. Not surprisingly, many of these companies and organizations want to weigh in about how things should be done in an effort to protect their interests and/or help move things forward. Some, like Cisco Systems and Itron Inc, are even trying goose the smart grid standardization process by forming little coalitions their own.

In case you’re not familiar with Itron, it sells end-to-end smart grid and smart distribution solutions to electric, gas and water utilities. The company claims it is the world’s leading provider of smart metering, data collection and utility software systems, with nearly 8,000 utilities worldwide relying on its technology.

The Itron, Cisco strategic alliance aims to develop a standards-based, secure, IPv6-based implementation of field area communications to support smart metering, intelligent distribution automation and interfaces to the customer premises. The goal is to help ensure consistent and interoperable wired and wireless communications among the various components of the smart grid by creating a reference design. Itron also will license and embed Cisco IP technology within its OpenWay meters as well as distribute Cisco networking equipment and software as part of the deal.

“Our customers have reiterated that security, interoperability and open standards are critical to the success of their smart grid initiatives,” says Philip Mezey, senior vice president and COO for Itron North America. “We are creating the first enterprise-class utility networking solution to utilize the scalable, reliable, highly secure technology synonymous with the Cisco name around the world. At Itron, we are enthusiastic about this effort and its potential to enhance utility communication networks around the globe.”

The companies declined to define clearly the scope of the effort in terms of the network, or to provide a timeline for when they expect to release the reference design. But they said the reference design would be leveraged by Itron’s existing solutions, and that they also expect to make it available to the larger market. And although the companies say their agreement has a worldwide focus, they’re employing the 900mHz meshing wireless technology that is prevalent for this kind of solution in North America and other select areas of the world.

The partners also note that they’ve been active in standards efforts such as the Zigbee Smart Energy Profile, smart grid efforts under way at the IEEE, and various cybersecurity groups, and that they plan to honor popular standards as part of their joint effort.

Speaking of the IEEE, INTERNET TELEPHONY recently spoke with the standards association folks there to get an update on their smart grid work.

The IEEE is addressing smart grid standards on a number of fronts, but among its work is the creation of a document with definitions and interface points between all the involved entities within the smart grid. For example, it will include interfaces for communications between utility substations and a control or dispatch center, and interfaces to allow the energy network to exchange information with home energy management systems, explains Dick DeBlasio, the IEEE chairman of the coordinating committee on smart grid development efforts. DeBlasio also is chief engineer renewable electricity and end use systems directorate for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Work on that document, which will probably include between 500 and 600 interfaces, began in March of 2009. It is now 70 percent complete, and the goal is for the group to take its first vote on it by March 2011, he says.

“It’s very challenging, it’s very contentious, because we’re dealing with different tribes here,” DeBlasio says. But he adds that because different groups and industries are coming together on this, they sometimes think they’re at odds, but they in fact are in agreement but are just describing things in different terms.

Another of the many smart grid efforts is the 160 member strong Z-Wave Alliance. It’s not really a standards effort, just more of a group that has aligned behind a particular technology and is working to promote it.

This group’s work stemmed from a technology called Zensys, now owned by Sigma Designs (News - Alert), that employs wireless mesh network technology that can be used in the home. The solution has been in the market for eight years and millions of products – from locks to thermostats to light switches – based on it have been shipped, says Mary Miller, director of marketing for the Z-Wave Alliance.

“It’s really bringing home control to the masses,” she says, adding that if you’ve ever seen an Apple (News - Alert) commercial in which a vacationing family uses an application to turn off their home lights remotely, you’ve seen a Z-Wave demo.

With names like Black & Decker (News - Alert) and Ingersoll Rand, among others, behind the Z-Wave Alliance, the Z-Wave technology would seem to have a nice foot in the door with the smart grid. But beyond just aligning behind a single technology, the Z-Wave Alliance represents an effort to enable the creation of a smart home that can be controlled – locally or remotely – using one home gateway device and one application, explains Miller.

Z-Wave solutions initially were sold through the builder/installer channel. Then the partners pushed into retail distribution at places including (News - Alert), Best, Lowe’s, Radio Shack and others. The security channel is its next target. Miller adds that the effort also has gotten a lot of attention from service providers, which are looking for additional sticky services to build their ARPUs and retain customers in a competitive market.

Yet despite all of the above-mentioned smart grid efforts, and numerous other activities on this front, Ray Bariso, executive director of solutions strategy in the operations solutions group at Telcordia (News - Alert), says that the first wave of smart grid deployments in the U.S. will not be standards based. That’s because the federal government, which last fall awarded $3.4 billion to fund 100 smart grid projects around the country, is requiring the recipients of that money to spend it within 36 months, he says. That means these smart grid deployments will take place before all the necessary standards have been worked out and finalized.

While that is a less than ideal situation, it tends to be the way communications deployments often work. Indeed, standards tend to evolve and be added to over time as network requirements and technologies change. So, while we’re just at the beginning of this thing we call smart grid – and the standards work around it is at an early and segmented stage – the work of standards and ensuring interoperability is never done. Such will be the case with the smart grid.

Edited by Tammy Wolf