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We need a two-way communication between our utilities and our homes that can be delivered via a smart grid, according to a panel of experts speaking today at the Green:Net conference today in San Francisco. Andrew Tang of PG&E (s PCG), highlighted the issue facing the utilities by noting that in the past power companies got their energy from a few generators. “In the past supply just happened,” Tang said. “In this brave new world, we have tens of thousands of generators to control but we still have to keep this balanced system [of supply and demand.]”
Tang brought up the difficulty utilities have when it comes to managing intermittent renewable power, and increasing resource loads from devices such as electric cars. Those problems and others will drive the need for a smart grid. The panelists agreed that when it comes to communications on the smart grid, there are some huge problems to surmount. Utilities cover a huge area, need communications that are more reliable than a cellular network, and have to do it cheaply. Whatever communications are used on a smart grid also need to also be open and standards-based, secure and future proofed — a utility cannot switch out its meters each time the technology changes. Eric Miller, chief solutions officer of Trilliant, claims the grid will require multiple communications technologies, and will require a mesh networking structure.
For startups concerned about finding their place in the smart grid, the panel didn’t offer much hope. Tang said the road to a contract will likely run through one of the existing large businesses who supply the power companies. Sunil Sharan, director, Smart Grid Initiative, GE Energy, said GE is working with startups to bring their technology before the utilities, but Eric Dresselhuys, VP and co-founder, Silver Spring Networks, says the current grid is less secure than the future smart grid will be. Tang said the current grid’s protection is “security by obscurity,” and he credited the mix of proprietary standards and equipment for the current protection.
At the close of the panel, each participant was asked to name three innovative startups. Sharan named Silver Springs Networks; eMeter, an electronic metering startup; and Google (GOOG). Miller named Sustainable Spaces, which does home retrofitting; Arcadian Networks, which provides wireless networking to utilities; and SunPower, which makes photovoltaic cells. Karl Lewis, chief strategy officer of GridPoint, named Control4, a home automation company; a variety of grid storage companies; and GM. Dresselhuys also named Control4; Serious Materials, a sustainable materials company; and Naverus, which offers sustainable flight plans.