How Honeywell is Tackling the Smart Grid


How does one of the world’s biggest makers of technology to control buildings connect to the power grid? With a reach into 150 million homes and 10 million buildings, and more than 100 utility partners around the world, Honeywell is in a natural position to start answering that question.

Indeed, Honeywell has been bridging the gap between smart buildings and the smart grid for years now. Most of that work has been through established channels such as smart thermostats installed for utility demand response programs, or building energy management systems that allow commercial and industrial clients to better manage their power use.

Still, that’s a good base for deploying the next-generation of technology. For Honeywell, that work includes a number of high-profile utility pilot projects, as well as its acquisition of Akuacom, maker of servers that use the cutting edge, open-source, demand response standard OpenADR. In addition, there’s Honeywell’s more recent partnership with home energy management startup EnergyHub. Here’s a breakdown of how Honeywell is moving from smart buildings into the smart grid.

1. The Smart Home via the Smart Thermostat. While Honeywell has been making programmable thermostats for more than a decade, it’s also moving into the next generation of thermostats that can communicate with utilities to turn power up and down to meet grid needs. That’s the world of demand response, and Honeywell is a big provider of equipment for the industry, as well as essentially a manager of demand response capability itself, with about 1 million direct load control devices in the field controlling about 1 GW of load as of 2010.

Of those thermostats, more than 350,000 of them are its own UtilityPro thermostats, which are now being used by Baltimore Gas & Electric and 30 other utilities in the U.S. and Canada. Honeywell expects to have about 500 MW of load under UtilityPro by 2011, a figure that would put it in a close second place to the residential demand response capacity of Comverge, which stood at about 650 megawatts as of 2010, according to a recent report from the Cleantech Group.

There’s an important difference between Comverge and Honeywell on this front, however. Honeywell doesn’t manage that load itself. Instead, long-time communications partner Cannon Technologies manages UtilityPro networks on behalf of utility clients, primarily via one-way pager networks. But UtilityPro is also ZigBee-enabled, which means the thermostats could interact with ZigBee home area networks being included in most of the smart meters now being deployed in North America, though Honeywell hasn’t yet linked UtilityPro thermostats to smart meters.

2. Home Energy Management via Partnership with EnergyHub. How does Honeywell plan to move beyond simple utility load control to full energy interaction with homeowners? A clue to its approach came in October, when it announced a partnership with EnergyHub, a New York-based maker of home energy dashboards and devices and the software to manage them all.

Honeywell’s work with EnergyHub is aimed at delivering a “home energy manager” platform, complete with smart appliance and home automation linkages and Web-based and smart phone applications to come, according to Brad Paine, director of energy management systems for Honeywell’s Environmental Combustion and Controls business.

While Paine declined to give specifics on what timeframe Honeywell intended to make these various pieces of its home energy solution available for testing or mass market, he did say the thermostat would be the first gateway for them to enter homes. He added that Honeywell would also work with EnergyHub’s utility partners, such as New York utility Consolidated Edison, in providing “turnkey solutions” to implementing smart meter deployments.

“This energy management system is going to have to go into the home on the back of something homeowners are already going to buy,” Paine said in a December interview. Startups and IT giants trying to push high-tech energy management gear into homes shouldn’t get “carried away by the value created for the homeowner” by those technologies, he said — a warning, perhaps, that higher-end, higher-cost systems will face a struggle in making their cost-benefit case to the mass market of homeowners out there.

3. Next-Generation Demand Response via OpenADR and Akuacom. Most of Honeywell’s demand response capacity today is in its residential thermostat program. While it has its energy control gear in millions of buildings and thousands of industrial sites around the world, it hasn’t yet linked them up to demand response via its own technology in a big way.

But with Honeywell’s acquisition of Akuacom in May, all of that is changing. Akucaom is currently the sole current commercial provider of servers that can serve as translators between buildings and utilities using OpenADR, a Berkeley Labs-developed, open source specification to help utilities automate demand response. (For more on OpenADR, check out my report at GigaOM Pro, “Report: An Open Source Smart Grid Primer” (subscription required).)

“For me, Akuacom was a critical piece of Honeywell’s strategy, because it linked two pieces of my business together,” said Jeremy Eaton, VP of energy solutions for Honeywell. Here’s how it works: Utilities send OpenADR signals via a variety of networks to Akuacom’s servers, which then translate those into commands for building controls. Honeywell’s Tridium building automation system, in turn, can serve as a “universal translator“ of those signals to a variety of building management systems, he said.

Today, OpenADR only serves a small sliver of the demand response market, though that’s going to increase with Honeywell’s OpenADR-based project with utility Southern California Edison to provide demand response to about 700 commercial and industrial customers. Given OpenADR’s place as an early pick for federal smart grid standards for automated demand response, smart grid heavyweights and startups alike are moving to make their systems interoperable with it — or, in a few cases, moving to provide equipment that could compete with Akuacom’s server’s lock on the market.

Honeywell is looking beyond Akuacom to other brands to leverage its growing OpenADR expertise. Take its NOVAR division, which manages about 6 GW of power load for a host of retail clients in buildings across the country. NOVAR is adding customers to Honeywell’s project with SCE in California, and could be looking to add OpenADR functionality elsewhere — such as Tallahassee, Fla., where Honeywell already has a $14.9 million contract to help the city manage about 220,000 smart electric, water and gas meters.

On the drawing board, Honeywell is about to start a pilot project to use OpenADR and automated building controls to shift power use up and down in increments as tight as a few minutes to help manage the kind of generation volatility associated with lots of wind power, Eaton said. He wouldn’t name the utility in question, however.

4. Experimenting on Home Energy Behavior, Utility Personnel Security. Honeywell’s smart grid and smart building efforts aren’t limited to contracts and deployments; it also has a couple of interesting research projects underway.

One that Paine described is a $1.6 million DOE grant-funded research project with Whirlpool and Pentair, aimed at a “context-aware home energy manager.” The idea is to develop technology that can track the behavior and power-use patterns of families via various sources — energy sensors, temperature and humidity monitors, motion detectors and the like — and then learns to make adjustments to shave away tidbits of energy efficiency without active human intervention. The project sounds like a much-expanded versions of startup EcoFactor’s software to track weather and other data to set home thermostats, though a lot more complicated.

Another more hush-hush project involves research into bringing next-generation smart grid cybersecurity to last-generation legacy utility control systems. Honeywell in September received $2.2 million from the DOE to research and commercialize a “role-based access control” system that can restrict access to authorized users only. Honeywell sent me a brief description of the project, which seems to be focused on setting up a hierarchy of individual access clearances to prevent the kind of social engineering that’s so often the root of security breaches in complex organizations. Honeywell intends to demonstrate the technology on its own SCADA system, with the goal of creating security that can be added on to legacy systems at large.

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Image courtesy of Honeywell Heating Controls via Creative Commons license.

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