Blog Post

Should We Force Marriage Between Broadband and Power Cos?

AE_logoWhile broadband service provider networks and utilities’ two-way smart grids belong together, the utilities are acting like a reluctant bride in an arranged marriage. Reasonable adults can see that combining the two is a good idea, but utilities and communications companies are oftentimes miles apart over standards, access and security. As a result, utilities are resisting any forced union that would involve hooking up their meters to customers’ broadband connections rather than a private network.

And that’s a shame, given how combining broadband and utility-provided smart meters could help consumers access web-based applications from Google’s (s goog) PowerMeter to Microsoft’s (s msft) Hohm, and to deliver innovative services such as tweets about home energy consumption. It’s also cheaper to use a home’s broadband than for a utility to build its own network. And data can be displayed to the customer a lot faster, too, because the speed of a normal broadband connection is generally faster than a utility’s private network. It can take as long as 24 hours to display the info back to the consumer on utility networks.

After reading about innovation in Germany where an electric company uses a customer’s broadband connection to help deliver intelligence about power use, I called my local utility, Austin Energy, which is considered an innovator in green energy. I wanted to find out how broadband and utility companies would deliver such services without using the same network, and why Austin Energy isn’t eager for any marriage of networks.

Andres Carvallo, chief information officer at Austin Energy, which in late summer will launch a citywide smart grid that will be able to deliver energy consumption data to subscribers every 50 minutes, says using a customer’s broadband access isn’t going to work. The Austin Energy grid uses a combination of 950 MHz wireless network and a fiber backbone. Part of the problem with using a subscriber’s broadband is that only about 80 percent of Austin Energy customers has broadband access or a broadband subscription, and the utility needs to reach everyone. The other issue is that the utility wants to control the network and information moving to and from the meter.

“The meter is the cash register for the utility,” said Carvallo, “so you have to have a reliable way of managing that cash register, and managing it everywhere — something we’re not able to do over a carrier’s broadband.”

But even if his utility isn’t eager to wed a consumer’s broadband subscription to the utility’s smart meter, he has hope that the two will be joined through other relationships. He sees a future in which a cable company or a security company might charge a consumer an extra $20 a month to monitor and manage home energy usage. Or one in which the utility will work with the Googles and Microsofts of the world to let consumers send their Austin Energy data to providers so they can manage it. Another Texas utility, TXU, provides its own tools for customers to use.

Carvallo thinks that by sharing the information flowing over its network with other providers, Austin Energy can strike a a balance between providing tools to help consumers who want to be engaged in managing their energy consumption, and not overwhelming those who could care less.

8 Responses to “Should We Force Marriage Between Broadband and Power Cos?”

  1. Jimmy Crackhorns

    I think itis a compelling argument, however, free market economists and players would go ballistic if the Feds came in and forced a massive upgrade to broadband and electrical grid. I like the idea because BPL is light years ahead of wi-fi and cable….we’re talking ethernet speeds bi-directional to multiple devices. But it also pigeon holes you to a power source that can be shut down through various means. It’s a risky prop and the real solution lies in a hybrid of redundency.

  2. While I have a great deal of respect for Andres, who is a leader in the field, I think it is a little early to rule out the use of the home broadband connection for the home connection to Smart Grid, at least in some circumstances. At the NIST standards sessions for Smart Grid, this was one of the use cases of interest.

    The issues are complicated and the answers will vary, utility by utility, but here are some of the considerations that utilities are facing:
    1. Is the purpose of the connection to better inform the consumer of information on consumption and pricing or to give the utility direct control for load reduction?
    2. If direct load reduction, what is the value of the load shedding capacity of the home…that is if an individual home uses little power, is it cost effective to try to do load control at that home (that is, is there a threshold of consumption that estalishes it as cost effective)? Is an interruption of the Broadband service for a few homes significant to the management of the grid?
    3. Is the utility going to be able to support real-time pricing (both with sytems and politically) or will it be limited to generalized time periods for “peak charges”…as pricing approaches real-time pricing the greater the need to signal consumers, and the more need for there to be a good user interface for consumers to atuomate their interaction with the pricing information. What will the pricing models be for use of the commercial wireless networks for extensive messaging, which is the model most of the meter vendors have been pushing?
    5. What is the anticipated role of the need to communicate with the charging systems for plug-in hybrids or electric vehicles…the more communication required, the greater driver to assure a reliable connection?
    6. While a broadband connection interruption might interfere with a reading at the time of a billing cycle end, utilities have always had methods to address missed reads. The loss of a consumer’s broadband connection, where the connection is transmitting information to the utility, may be an alert for the utility that they may need to check-in with the customer; depending on the model, the customer may lose their ability to get a preferential rate (where given for load control), or get the information they need to reduce their electric bill, or only be able to charge their vehicle other than during a default window set by the utility.

    The previous comment, that there is much to do for the utility to be able to use increased magnitudes of data to improve operations is very true.

  3. Electric utility companies have been using (dedicated) phone lines to get frequent meter reads from some large customers such as manufacturing units, for many years now. Most smart meter installations right now use a combination of RF and cell-phone network to get meter reads. So, there is some merit to the idea of using broadband connections get meter reads. Utilities have two main concerns:

    1. Reliability – they must have assured two-way communication with the meters 100% of the time. Even if the electric utility customer is not actually a broadband customer, even if the customer does not pay his broadband bill and gets his internet service shut off, the electric utility company must be able to communicate with the meter. What happens if/when the broadband company has to do maintenance on their network? Is there a redundant fall-back network for meter communications or the meters pretty much incommunicado during the maintenance window?

    2. Security.

    A third concern is cost – broadband companies must offer meter communication at lower costs than the technology currently used by the utilities. If the above two basic requirements and the cost concern can be met by the broadband companies, I don’t see a reason why utilities would not sign up to use the broadband channel to get meter data.


  4. ManoMan

    The problem is not the sharing of information, it’s the sheer amount of data points collected and the lack of software analysis to figure out what is a problem and what isn’t. I work at an electric cooperative on some smartgrid stuff, and truly this is a misdirected effort. 99 percent of all data is collected and not analyzed. Why collect hourly readings, demand KW, and control appliances centrally when only 1 percent of the customers would ever be affected by its results.

    The best thing you could do is buy a little device with CT’s that monitors your usage real time and displays in dollars what you’re using right now. If you’re on a Time of Use Rate at 30 cents per hour, you’ll care a lot about your usage from 2-5 pm, when it costs 6 times more to buy electricity. That will alter consumptive behavior as fast as gas prices of $4.00.

  5. Another concern that is not addressed, is that while right now it seems that power and broadband companies have nothing to compete over, in the future they might become direct competitors. The idea of internet over the power grid has long been thrown around, and should be coming alive now that at least linksys has figured out how to do it inside the home. Therefore it is clearly a viable way of transferring data.