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How WiMAX Can Retool the Power Grid

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WiMAX might have been coined wireless betamax by phone companies lately, but a serial entrepreneur with a background in network management from Cisco (s CSCO) is betting WiMAX is the wireless standard to usher in the smart grid era. That would be Ray Bell, the founder of smart meter software startup Grid Net. You might have heard of him from the dotcom days when he founded network management startup SmartPipes (a play on the carrier as the dumb pipe) with funds from Netscape founder Jim Clark and Kleiner Perkin’s John Doerr.

Bell left the networking world and SmartPipes after the bottom dropped out of that market, and he got his start in the power industry by joining cleantech heavyweight Foundation Capital as an Entrepreneur in Residence and later became CEO of Foundation’s smart grid portfolio company Silver Spring Networks. Bell refocused the company, recruited the current CEO and left the firm after envisioning a different direction for the smart grid. Fast-forward to four years later and Bell’s vision of the smart grid — Grid Net — now competes with Silver Spring on some of its utility deals.

What’s Grid Net’s pitch? Grid Net makes the software that can run a smart grid based on WiMAX, delivering a smart meter built around truly open standards that will benefit from economies of scale; in a year and a half Bell says his smart meter will be cheaper than proprietary-based ones out there. The idea has sparked the interest of GE and Intel, which both invested in Grid Net and are also partnering on production: GE makes the smart meter, and Intel the WiMAX chip.

The meters could use national WiMAX networks (likely Clearwire, but Bell didn’t comment on that) or WiMAX networks that would be built and owned by a utility. There are a lot of issues to work out, but Grid Net’s smart meter went on sale to select utilities in March, and Bell says there are four big utility deals in the pipeline. He’s betting the company on the success of the WiMAX standard — hardly a sure thing — but if the smart grid really will follow the lessons of the Internet, open standards will be a key driver.

9 Responses to “How WiMAX Can Retool the Power Grid”

  1. 5ubr054

    Don, a few things you should consider:

    1) utilities will never control home appliances without consumer consent

    2) you obviously do not understand the economics of outfitting a meter to
    “using the home’s existing broadband connection to report usage”

    3) utilities need to network 100% of the population, not just those with
    existing Internet or broadband connections. the meter is their cash register; they cannot rely on customer owned-managed network access for Billing and consumption reduction

    4) elected or appointed regulators of electric monopolies, which approve
    rate cases, work on behalf of the public (there is no ‘involuntary’

    5) the planet is in crisis. voluntary adoption (“30% over 10 years”) of smart metering is no
    longer an option. grid efficiency and conservation must be improved

    6) a wireless broadband network funded with utility capital investment
    affords an historical opportunity to bridge the digital divide, in
    locations where cable is not economically feasible and dsl is not
    technically feasible, thus enabling tremendous socio-economic benefits
    to society.

  2. Don Jackson

    Why do we need to build/roll out a new broadband service to read electricity meters? What percentage of homes in the US have broadband connectivity today? 50%? Why can’t we deploy smart meters today that use a secure/encrypted link back to the power company using the home’s existing broadband connection to report usage? A second unencrypted link should also be provided to the homeowner.

    The bureaucracy (Power companies, regulators) are apparently attempting to implement a top-down,
    centrally controlled solution:
    They fund (well, you fund indirectly and involuntarily) and deliver a smart power meter to your house,
    including a NEW transport network so they can communicate with the smart meter.
    All communication with the home-based infrastructure goes through them
    They make the decisions about turning things off/on inside your house.

    This seems like a really bad idea, and it is no wonder things are going so slowly.

    Here is what I would propose:

    The power companies should certify a number of “compatible” smart meters that
    end users can purchase and install
    These power meters would offer a WiFi/enet connection that the user can plug into
    their existing broadband solution.
    The embedded computer inside the meter would “phone home” to the power company
    via an encrypted tunnel, giving the power company the info it needs.
    A second control/status port would be provided to the user, so they could read and
    control their power usage
    People who choose to purchase and install these smart meters
    would be offered metered power usage whose price varies by time-of-day, etc.
    This would give users the economic incentive to move their consumption to
    to off-peak/cheaper times.

    These (vastly different) approaches are not mutually exclusive. We could enable the latter,
    while still pursuing the former. I realize we won’t get any where near 100% deployment using
    the approach I propose, but in 10 years, we think it is possible we could get 30-50% of the homes
    to do this. And I would guess these are the homes that have higher energy usage.

    We need to implement the Smart Grid like we implemented the Internet, bottom up.

    The current Smart Grid looks like ITU/telco central planning all over again.

  3. Apologies, my previous comment went through too quickly. I do like the concept of the utilities expanding their services and we see that a triple play broadband (multimedia, VOIP and internet) can be executed using LED based visible light spectrum. The power efficiency gained from using LED’s marries well with the potential of the larger data transfer which it allows. Add to this the disruptive element that the visible light spectrum does not produce electromagnetic radiation and does not require licensing, the utilities can muscle in on the Telecomms market share without becoming a Telco.

    I know we are not at immediate launch date for such services right now, but I do not think WiMax is future proof to the visible light technology.

  4. I am currently working with research and consultancy related to Visible light communications. This I believe is also one area which is beneficial to the utilities.