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Is Open Source the Answer to Residential Demand Response?

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OpenADR — the Berkeley Labs open source system for automating the way utilities do demand response — is already being used to control some 70 megawatts of capacity for big industrial and commercial customers of California’s biggest utilities. Could it expand its reach into homes and small businesses? Mary Ann Piette, research director at Berkeley Labs’ Demand Response Research Center, believes it can and mentioned a list of interested parties on Wednesday during a California Public Utilities Commission workshop in San Francisco.

Energy management startup Tendril Networks has been involved in testing out the possibility of bringing OpenADR, which stands for Open Automated Demand Response, to residential. Sacramento’s utility, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District, has tested OpenADR in small business HVAC systems in a way that might offer an analog to connecting home thermostats. Pacific Gas & Electric (s PCG) has also been mulling a test of OpenADR over its smart meter networks, Piette said. (We reached out to PG&E for more details and we’re waiting to hear back).

Google (s GOOG) isn’t on that list yet, but it might well be interested, Piette said. Google has asked the CPUC to set deadlines for California’s big utilities to give their customers real time energy usage and price data from smart meters. But those utilities point to various technical challenges to meeting those deadlines. Piette said that OpenADR could help utilities deliver that type of real-time pricing data in the way that Google has requested.

OpenADR vs. Next-Gen ZigBee

ZigBee is the leading wireless standard for home energy management, but OpenADR has some strong points for the residential market, too. OpenADR combines pricing information with the demand response signals that it transmits to utilities using a variety of networks. That’s the same kind of functionality that ZigBee is promising with its next version of its Smart Energy Profile for home area networks. But while the next generation of ZigBee’s energy profile is still in development, OpenADR has been successfully running demand response events in California since 2005, and is set to reach some 150 megawatts of capacity by next year, Piette noted. “It is commercialized, it is being used, and it is performing very well,” she said.

Most utilities seem to prefer to embrace the next-generation of ZigBee’s energy profile. Paul De Martini, Southern California Edison’s vice president of advanced technology, said at Wednesday’s workshop that next-gen ZigBee energy is being built specifically to link smart meters and homes, which would make it the preferred technology choice for in-home energy management. ZigBee also has about 340 companies around the world working with it, and just this week the Wi-Fi Alliance said it would work with the ZigBee Alliance on the standard, expanding the potential range of wireless technologies that could implement it. “That’s why we think it’s the way to go in the residential space,” he said.

OpenADR, on the other hand, has so far been aimed at controlling automation systems for big industrial and commercial buildings, De Martini noted. That means it’s been designed to interface with sophisticated building controls, not necessarily the simple thermostats found in most homes. Of course, the fact that Southern California Edison, along with fellow big investor-owned utilities Pacific Gas & Electric and San Diego Gas & Electric, have chosen ZigBee as their preferred technology for linking smart meters to homes, could also be a factor in De Martini’s defense of the next-gen ZigBee energy profile.

Progress of Open Source

OpenADR does offer the capability of running over wireless technologies including ZigBee, and has about 50 companies interested in working with it, Piette said. Honeywell (s HON) is using OpenADR in demand response projects with Southern California Edison and two Florida utilities, and is talking to India utilities about opportunities in that country, she said.

Siemens (s SI), Schneider Electric (s SU), Johnson Controls (s JCI) and Echelon (s ELON) are among the other big buildings control companies working on incorporating OpenADR. Akuacom — the company that makes the servers that translate OpenADR signals into actions within building control systems in California — is working on a pilot project in Canada, and Korean national utility KEPCO is also working on a demand response automation server, or DRAS, of its own, she said.

That’s possible because OpenADR is an open source standard. Berkeley Labs is working with integration firm Utility Integration Solutions (UISOL) to develop an OpenADR package for utilities to build on, which should be out this summer, Piette said. Because OpenADR can run over a variety of physical communications, it’s adaptable to different uses, she said. For example, SMUD has tested out converting OpenADR signals to travel over FM radio signals to smart thermostats it’s installed in customers’ homes. PG&E is considering testing OpenADR over its smart meter network, though those plans are still in the very early discussion stages, she said.

OpenADR for Home Energy Management?

As for how OpenADR’s client-server model would be translated into simpler home energy management systems, Piette pointed to some preliminary work Berkeley Labs has done with small commercial establishments like fast food restaurants (PDF), which might be more similar to homes than to the big office buildings and factories that have sophisticated building controls. Small commercial buildings use less than 200 kW of peak demand, but collectively make up 20-25 percent of peak electric demand in California, so finding a cheap and effective way to automate their HVAC and lighting systems to power down on utility command or at the proper price points could add a big wallop to the state’s demand response capacity.

Prominent home energy networking startup Tendril is on the list of vendors Berkeley Labs has worked with on small commercial buildings, as well as a long list of others such as home automation system maker Universal Devices, thermostat maker Golden Power and lighting controls company Adura Technologies.

Image courtesy of juverna’s photostream Flickr Creative Commons.

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11 Responses to “Is Open Source the Answer to Residential Demand Response?”

  1. This is the first time I’ve heard about OpenADR as well. It sounds great and I’m very concerned to have yet another piece of data that should be open (i.e., my home energy usage) trapped in some proprietary box in some proprietary data format. I hope OpenADR and all the supported make progress and will keep an eye on it. I’d install one in my house!

  2. It should be noted that the current Zigbee licensing is not compatible with the GPL so Zigbee is not open source. The Zigbee Alliance is aware of this problem and has not taken action to fix it. The Bluetooth Alliance has fixed their GPL incompatibility problems after becoming aware of the problem.

  3. Adrian Tuck

    I am confused.

    This is the first time I have ever heard Open ADR being positioned as competitive to ZigBee. At Tendril, we implement Open ADR using ZigBee. We have never seen these systems as competitive as they address different pieces of the value chain. Almost every implementation of Open ADR I have ever encountered uses ZigBee.