Summary:

Moving from the current wireless standard ZigBee to the next-generation ZigBee standard dubbed “Smart Energy Profile 2.0″ is going to be a very big deal for utilities, and smart grid firms. Now we’ve got three months to map out the transition.

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Moving from the current wireless standard ZigBee to the next-generation ZigBee standard dubbed “Smart Energy Profile 2.0″ is going to be a very big deal for the utilities, smart meter makers and other technology providers involved. About three months from now, we’re going to know a lot more about how big of a deal it’s going to be.

Last week, the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP) set a three-month deadline for a new task force to come up with with guidelines for how to handle that transition. Over at my weekly update at GigaOm Pro (subscription required), I get into some of the details on this rush-order job.

First, let’s define our terms. The current ZigBee standard, or Smart Energy 1.0, is the leading wireless technology for connecting millions of smart meters to the homes that they serve. Texas utilities are rolling out hundreds of thousands of smart meters with ZigBee SE 1.0 in them right now, and other U.S. utilities are following suit. In fact, the ZigBee Alliance wants ZigBee SE 1.0 — and ongoing revisions of it — included on lists of potential federal smart grid standards.

The problem is, SE 1.0 only runs over ZigBee’s IEEE 802.15.4 radios, and while it can be bridged to other networks, that requires extra equipment and adds to the per-home costs of wireless energy networks. ZigBee’s Smart Energy Profile 2.0, on the other hand, is made to work seamlessly with Internet protocol (IP), the dominant networking standard. That’s why the Wi-Fi Alliance and the HomePlug Alliance (IP-based technologies) are partners on SEP 2, and why the federal government and IP evangelists like Cisco favor it for a smart grid standard. (For more on ZigBee-WiFi rivalry and cooperation, read my report, “ZigBee vs. Wi-Fi: The Race is (Still) On,” at GigaOm Pro (subscription required).)

But John McDonald, the General Electric exec who chairs the SGIP’s governing board chairman, told me last week that there’s lot of uncertainty about how ready the big smart meter manufacturers are to upgrade from ZigBee SE 1 to ZigBee SE 2. That’s a problem, because state utility regulators are starting to demand data on just how much these transitions might cost.

“We want to get all the major meter manufacturers involved,” he said — a list that includes GE, as well as Itron, Sensus, Landis+Gyr and Elster — “but we don’t want it to take too long.” There are a lot of variables to count up in three months. GE, for example, installs Silver Spring Networks radios with their own ZigBee meter-to-home chips for its contract with California utility Pacific Gas & Electric, but it’s also capable of putting its own ZigBee radios into its own meters, McDonald said.

Whether they’re all going to be able to talk SEP 2 to one another is the main question. Bob Heile, chairman of the ZigBee Alliance, said last week that ZigBee radios running SE 1.0 or 1.1 in meters today can be remotely upgraded to run SE 2, and can also upgrade the in-home device they’re talking to.

But McDonald wondered whether some smart meters might need to have their circuit boards pulled, or even be replaced entirely, to comply with SEP 2.0, which is a prospect that comes with a price tag that would chill the bones of any utility.

The ZigBee Alliance just released its latest draft specification for comment and is six months or so from a released specification, Heile said. That means utilities won’t even be able to try it out until 2012. In the meantime, we’ve got three months to figure out how they’re going to do it.

Image courtesy of Taliesin via Creative Commons license.

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