Mapping the Move to ZigBee 2.0

ZigBee Smart Energy 1.0 and ZigBee Smart Energy Profile 2.0 aren’t the same technology, and moving from one to the other is going to be a very big deal for the utilities, smart meter makers and other technology providers involved. We have limited time to figure the transition out.

Last week, the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP) set a three-month deadline for a new task force to come up with with guidelines on how to handle that transition. That’s a short turnaround for such a complicated task, which involves studying every smart meter maker and utility and every way they’re using ZigBee.

What’s the difference between the two technologies? ZigBee Smart Energy 1.0 (SE 1) is the leading wireless technology for connecting millions of smart meters to homes. ZigBee Smart Energy Profile 2.0 (SEP 2), meanwhile, is a key technology expected to become a federal smart grid standardThe latter has new features like plug-in electric vehicle charging, prepay services and demand response, to name a few. The key difference, however, is that SE 1 only works over ZigBee radios, while SEP 2 is an end-to-end Internet protocol (IP)-compliant. That’s why the Wi-Fi Alliance, the HomePlug Alliance, the federal government and big IP boosters like Cisco all favor it for a smart grid standard.

Why the rush? According to John McDonald, strategy and policy director for General Electric’s global energy business and chairman of the SGIP governing board, there’s a lot of uncertainty about how ready big smart meter manufacturers are to upgrade from SE 1 to SEP 2. At the same time, state utility regulators are starting to demand data on just how much these transitions will cost.

Texas utilities are rolling out hundreds of thousands of smart meters with ZigBee SE 1 in them right now; other utilities are following suit. SGIP wants to make sure “utilities don’t have stranded assets that can’t be upgraded or migrated in some form,” McDonald told me in an interview last week.

How will the transition happen in the real world? McDonald laid out two potential categories — vendors who have built SEP 2.0 upgradeability into their plans, and those that haven’t. For the latter camp, SGIP will be asking questions like, “Can we take an existing meter and change the printed circuit board in it, or do we need to swap out meters,” he said.

Some utilities seem to think the transition might not be so simple. Pacific Gas & Electric, for example, is waiting for SEP 2 before it rolls out ZigBee smart meter-to-home connections for its 10 million smart meters.

What’s at stake? Potentially, a lot. Utilities expect their gear to last 15 to 20 years, but IT advances in three- to five-year cycles. If smart meter vendors and technology partners can’t remotely upgrade their systems, their utility customers might be forced to entertain a very costly hardware upgrade to reap the benefits of SEP 2.

Of course, utilities happy with their ZigBee SE 1 systems wouldn’t have to upgrade to SEP 2, but that would exclude them from the coming world of standards-based SEP 2 systems. In fact, the Wi-Fi Alliance argues against allowing SE 1.0  (or any future 1.x, non-IP version) from being made a standard for this reason — a move the ZigBee Alliance obviously opposes.

Whatever it’s called, SEP 2 will be a key smart-grid to smart-home standard, and that makes it worth watching. The standard is still six months or so from a released specification, and will likely be limited to utility trials and evaluations in 2012, Heile said. But should have SGIP’s verdict on how the industry should prepare for the switchover — and just how costly it might be — by summer.

Question of the week

Are meter manufacturers ready for the transition from ZigBee 1.0 to “ZigBee” Smart Energy Profile 2.0?