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Current’s pivot: From broadband to smart grid to overseas

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Old-skool broadband watchers will remember the name Current, because at one point a half decade ago Google (s GOOG), Goldman Sachs, General Electric (s GE) and others pumped over $200 million into the company, in an effort to make broadband over powerline (BPL) tech a reality (Om once described BPL in 2005 as: the curious case of throwing good money after bad tech). Jump forward about six years, and Current has morphed into a smart grid company and on Tuesday morning is announcing its latest funding and a pivot to focus sales of its smart grid gear outside of the U.S.

Current says it has raised another $13 million from investors including Chinese investor Business Media China, Portuguese investor Espírito Santo Ventures, and existing U.S. investors Associated Partners, EnerTech Capital and Goldman Sachs. Current’s President and CEO Tom Willie told me in an interview that the company will increasingly look outside of the U.S. to Europe and Asia, which  he says represent better economic opportunities for a good portion of its smart grid tech.

Current sells sensors and smart grid networking gear, such as infrastructure to connect transformers, and the company spearheaded a powerline networking standard for moving data over the grid. Willie said that because more people in Europe and Asia live in multi-tenant dwellings, that leads to a volume of 150 to 200 homes per transformer, which means smart transformer projects can be economical for utilities. In contrast, in the U.S., with so many single family homes, there are more like 6 homes per transformer, explained Willie, and the expenses of smart transformer projects sometimes can’t be justified. While Current will still continue to sell its sensor products in the U.S., it will concentrate selling much of its other smart grid architecture to Europe and Asia.

Current has encountered uneconomical smart grid projects in the U.S. before. Namely Boulder’s infamously over-budget SmartGridCity project, which used fiber and in-home devices and ballooned in costs from $15.3 million to $44.8 million just for the construction of the residential smart grid project. Current provided its sensor and infrastructure gear for the project, which went live in 2009, and which Willie described as a “sandbox” to learn about smart grid tech.

The company changed it’s business to provide smart grid technology several years ago, but has always counted utilities as its customers. Current is announcing its new direction and funding this week in time for the Washington D.C. smart grid conference GridWeek.

Image of smart transformer tech courtesy of Current Group.

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