The Battle Over the Next-gen Open Smart Grid

Will the smart grid eventually follow the path of the Internet with truly open standards? Several up-and-coming companies are betting that the answer will be a resounding “yes” and are in the process of looking to sign up utilities and customers that want to embrace the open-standards smart grid vision. Among them is newcomer Arch Rock, which has been selling wireless network products for data centers and buildings for the past five years, and on Monday morning plans to announce its first smart grid wireless network product based completely on open standards.

Arch Rock’s network product, dubbed “PhyNet-Grid,” is designed to connect smart meters to the utility back office using wireless mesh technology — an architecture where each node can act independently and which is self-healing — and is based on the wireless standard created by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) called “802.15.4g.” Arch Rock CEO Roland Acra tells me that the gear, which will be sold to third-party manufacturers first, not directly to utilities, is the first that is based “from top to bottom on open standards.”

Companies like Cisco (s CSCO), which has just awoken with its first smart grid products, and Silver Spring Networks have been developing smart grid wireless infrastructure that’s based on Internet Protocol (IP) but isn’t necessarily entirely based on open standards. “We’re using standardized radios, which is not the case with Silver Spring Networks,” explains Acra.

So will there be a market for a truly open standards-based smart grid? Acra says competition between vendors at the chip and radio level will create an infrastructure that is better and lower cost than proprietary offerings. That’s the idea behind the open standards of wireless technology for the Internet — Wi-Fi radios became so cheap that every laptop, and practically every device, now has Wi-Fi embedded as a default.

Other companies in addition to Arch Rock are looking to develop the next generation of open-standard smart grid infrastructure, including Grid Net, which has developed smart meter software around the wireless standard WiMAX, and has partnered with GE (s GE), Intel (s INTC) and Motorola. As Grid Net CEO Ray Bell told me last year, that company developed one of the first truly open standards-based approaches to the smart meter, and third parties have been able to build various applications and devices in conjunction with it, helping to dramatically drive down the cost.

Smart grid network company SmartSynch launched a “universal” router for the smart grid, called GridRouter, that can connect various networks, products and languages to help create an open ecosystem for the smart grid. Smart Synch says the Internet Protocol-based GridRouter can act as a bridge between proprietary smart grid devices from companies.

One of the reasons that Acra thinks the next generation of the smart grid will be based on truly open standards is because the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), led by George Arnold (one of our Top 15 Smart Grid Influencers), has been advocating an open approach. The FCC has also been supporting an open standards approach to promote interoperability.

However, it remains to be seen how truly open the smart grid needs to be compared to Internet architecture, and whether or not utilities will ultimately embrace this approach. PhyNet-Grid is Arch Rock’s first utility-focused product and Acra says that the company has at least two customers — one that completed a project in late 2009, the other, a large meter vendor that will enter the market in late 2010 — but Acra wouldn’t disclose who the customers are.

San Francisco-based Arch Rock is backed by $15 million from venture investors NEA, Intel Capital and Shasta Ventures.

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Image courtesy of Blude and Arch Rock.