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Summary:

Distributech, the once-sleepy power grid trade show, has been transformed into a high-profile smart grid showcase over the past couple of years — this year’s show in Tampa, Fla. is no exception. Here’s 10 things you should pay attention to coming outta Distributech this year.

DistribuTECH, the once-sleepy power grid trade show, has been transformed into a high-profile smart grid showcase over the past couple of years — and this year’s show in Tampa, Fla. is no exception. Only two days into the event and we’ve got a host of announcements detailing new partnerships between IT giants and home energy management startups, new ways to do demand response, and new technologies for keeping the grid running smoothly. Here’s 10 things you should pay attention to coming outta DistribuTECH:

1). Smart grid consumer outreach: Today the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative, a partnership aimed at bridging the gap between smart grid technologies and power consumers, launched. Given the consumer backlash mounting against smart meters in California and Texas, and the focus on consumer friendliness from the federal agency setting smart grid standards, it’s something the industry needs. Partners include IBM and General Electric, home automation company Control4, smart grid networking vendor Silver Spring Networks, and utility Southern California Edison. While the SGCC is focused on educating utilities, vendors and consumers, it could also be seen as a list of companies that might be partnering with one another in the future.

2). Consumer-facing partnerships: Of course, in the patchwork world of smart grid vendors, having multiple routes to the customer can only help. GridPoint, the richly-funded smart grid software maker that’s working on Xcel Energy’s showcase SmartGridCity project in Boulder, Colo., already has its own home energy management system courtesy of its acquisition of Lixar last year. But that hasn’t stopped it from inking two interoperability deals at DistribuTECH this week. One is with home energy display maker EnergyHub and another is with smart thermostat maker ecobee.

3). New standards for demand response: Tendril Networks, the Boulder-based home energy management startup that makes software and devices to link smart meters to customers, launched its new Vision home energy dashboard at the show this week. Tendril also announced two new partnerships aimed at getting it connected en masse — a licensing agreement with smart metering heavyweight Landis+Gyr and plans to integrate with Utility Integration Solutions (UISOL), a company working on automating the demand response systems that allow utilities to ask customers to turn down power to shave peak demand. The latter project is interesting, as it melds two different standards for managing the automation of getting utility power-down signals to customers.

Tendril supports both Smart Energy Profile, an emerging standard from the ZigBee Alliance aimed at the residential market, and OpenADR, a Berkeley Labs-developed open source standard used today by commercial and industrial customers. UISOL is developing kits for utilities to implement OpenADR, and Smart Energy Profile has been named as a likely smart grid standard by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), so both are likely to play an important part in future demand response systems.

4). Wi-Fi for the home energy network? So far, the world of the energy-sensing and controlling home area network (HAN) has been dominated by ZigBee, the low-power wireless technology that is being included in many of the smart meters now being deployed in North America. But there’s a growing number of home energy devices looking to good old Wi-Fi to get the networking job done, and smart meter maker Aclara joined that group this week.

The division of Esco Technologies said it was working with Intwine Connect to deliver a Wi-Fi home area network to utilities. The Wi-Fi Alliance said last week that it would work with the ZigBee Alliance on a new version of its smart energy profile, indicating a path for Wi-Fi networks to mash up with evolving smart grid standards.

5). Other roads to demand response: There are multiple ways to get utilities and customers talking to one another, such as Comverge’s Apollo software system. The big demand response aggregator said Tuesday that it will work with big smart meter maker Sensus to run Comverge signals across Sensus’ network. Of course, it’s a “non-exclusive alliance” that mentions a host of other linkages, such as ZigBee home automation systems and the U-SNAP Alliance, a group that wants to make smart grid devices with modular communications slots.

6). Smart grid security: Control4, the high-end home automation company with a lower-cost system for measuring household energy, announced a partnership to deliver residential demand response with Lockheed Martin, the defense contractor that also has a host of utility partnerships. Lockheed and fellow defense contractors like Boeing and Raytheon say they can provide military-grade security to the grid — and security is a particular focus of NIST.

7). Opening up smart grid platforms: Control4 also made a nod toward open smart grid systems with news that it will open its new Advantage software platform to third-party application developers. That follows the example of many startups, as well as IT giants such as Google and Microsoft, which both plan to open their nascent home energy management platforms to third-party developers as well. It’s all part of a growing push toward opening smart grid data for new uses, one that could come into conflict with rising data privacy and security concerns.

8). Silver Spring expands: No smart grid shindig could go without mention of Silver Spring Networks, the well-funded smart grid startup voted most likely to go public this year. On Tuesday, the Redwood City, Calif.-based company added a new customer, Australia’s Western Power, to its growing list of utilities under contract. Notably, the utility will use both Silver Spring’s smart grid networking and its CustomerIQ home energy management platform, based on technology it got when it bought startup Greenbox in September.

9). New grid control systems: While linking consumers to the smart grid takes center stage, the business of actually running the grid is building up steam. The Department of Energy directed some $2 billion of its smart grid stimulus funds at integrating and “crosscutting” different smart grid technologies. S&C Electric Co. launched just such an integrated platform on Tuesday, one that links software, radio networks and the Chicago-based company’s grid control gear, such as switches and fault restoration devices.

All of those devices have embedded computing power, a way to distribute intelligence throughout the grid to restore grid failures in seconds, rather than minutes, Witold Bik, vice president of automation systems for S&C told us. Utilities face increasing regulatory and business pressure to shorten the time it takes to restore outages, as well as the challenge of integrating more intermittent renewable power onto their grids.

10). Faster smart grid networks: Part of making the smart grid work is having a network fast enough to trip grid equipment to match fluctuations in grid power, and S&C said it is also forming a new business line to market its SpeedNet radio system for such uses. S&C will face competition from the likes of Tropos Networks, the muni Wi-Fi company that’s moved into smart grid.

Tropos announced a partnership with leading smart meter maker Itron at DistribuTECH this week, aimed at integrating their platforms. Itron, like many smart meter networking companies prevalent in North American smart meter deployments, uses a lower-cost, lower-bandwidth 900-megahertz network to link smart meters at the neighborhood level, but needs partners to provide the “backhaul” to connect those smart meter networks with utilities.

Other companies working on richer, faster wireless networks include Trilliant, Arcadian Networks and the host of companies working on WiMax-based smart grid networks, such as Grid Net.

By Jeff St. John

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