Lesson From IBM: Smart Energy Systems Need a Lot of Friends

ibm-logoIBM’s (s IBM) “smarter planet initiative” seeks to connect everything from railways to the power grid to buildings with sensors, software and communications gear. And to accomplish such a feat (to basically act as a platform to connect various infrastructure), the computing company needs friends — a whole lot of them. On Tuesday at the company’s Green and Beyond Summit for Industry in San Francisco, Big Blue announced a slew of smart systems-focused partnerships with fellow tech giants, regulators and research institutes.

One of IBM’s most far-reaching new partnerships is called the Green Sigma Coalition, and it’s starting out with eight charter members, including Johnson Controls (s JCI), Honeywell Building Solutions (s HON), Cisco (s CSCO), Siemens (s SI) and others. According to IBM, each of the allied companies plans to integrate their tech with a set of products and services it has designed to help firms meter, monitor and analyze energy and water use, greenhouse gas emissions and waste (the company’s so-called “Green Sigma solution”). The idea is to offer customers a single, comprehensive view of their resource use, efficiency and overall environmental impact.

IBM’s allies in the Green Sigma group are hardly strangers. In addition to the new coalition, IBM is announcing today that it has integrated its Tivoli Monitoring for Energy Management system with both Cisco’s EnergyWise energy management system and Honeywell’s building management offering. Honeywell has had a chief role in building management for years, and Cisco has recently declared ambitious smart grid plans, so the two companies will likely be useful partners for IBM. IBM also doesn’t accept just any firm as a partner — firms have to go through a software validation process to make the cut. In addition to Cisco and Honeywell, IBM says it has “validated” Novell and Thunderhead.

IBM wants to go beyond the tools for monitoring and managing energy, however. It also aims to develop and eventually license technology for energy storage — a crucial piece of the smart grid that has been largely ignored by Congress, investors and entrepreneurs until recently. IBM announced plans on Tuesday to launch a major long-term (“multi-year”) research initiative into rechargeable batteries “capable of storing 10 times more energy than today’s most powerful lithium-ion batteries. Eventually, this technology could power smarter energy grids, support widespread use of electric cars, and more.”

Headquartered at IBM’s Almaden lab in San Jose, Calif., the research team will focus on “grid-scale, efficient, affordable electrical energy storage network” using “lithium/air systems,” IBM said in a release Tuesday. The company expects to find partners in the private sector, as well as academia for the project.

Tuesday’s announcements about new smart systems technology and energy storage initiatives come as part of a much larger push at IBM, which created back in 2007 the Intelligent Utility Network Coalition with a group of utilities interested in bringing computing to the electricity network — long before the government started handing out billions of dollars in stimulus-funded grants and incentives for a smart grid buildout.