Some smart grid companies are working around the smart meter to get into your home through the Internet.

Take home automation system maker Control4 and smart grid software developer Gridpoint for example. The two companies are working to integrate Control4's newly launched home energy management system with utilities via Gridpoint's software, they announced at the DistribuTech conference in San Diego this week.

Control4 is testing its system with Xcel Energy's SmartGridCity project, with enabled homes now taking commands from the utility to dampen lights and air conditioners during peak demand times. And at least for now, "We're using the Internet" to take those commands, said Paul Nagel, vice president of strategic development.

Gridpoint wants to help make that communication two-way, giving utilities information on power reductions on a house-by-house, minute-by-minute basis, Nagel said. If a smart meter is there to make that happen, fine – utilities are busy installing tens of millions of smart meters to send and receive energy use and control signals for customers' homes (see Smart Meter Installations Grow Nearly Fivefold).

But that's going to take some time – and for other utilities that may have invested in the last generation of meters that can send but not receive data, switching out those meters for those with two-way communications capability may not be a financially feasible option, he said. In either case, the Internet is a good alternative route.

Karl Lewis, chief strategy officer with Gridpoint, said that utilities might not want to depend on smart meters as the communications gateway in the first place.

An electric meter "needs to be cheap, and it needs to be in the right place for a long time," he said. "It should not sit in the communications' path, it should not sit in the application's path."

But there are problems with the Internet work-around. Smart meters, after all, are valuable sources of data because they're measuring power usage in real time, something a homeowner might have to spend lots of money on to replicate with in-home devices. And the issue of paying up-front for an uncertain payback in energy savings has been the bane of previous attempts to bring energy management to the home.

In fact, the promise of having the utility pay the lion's share of the cost of installing that smart meter – and then giving incentives for homeowners to install home energy management equipment that can talk to it – has been seen as the solution to that problem.

Still, at least one utility is taking an "either/or" approach for now. In Texas, Energy Future Holdings Corp.'s retail business TXU Energy is giving its customers "iThermostats" that can be programmed over the Internet. At the same time, its energy distribution business, Oncor, is in the midst of installing more than 3 million smart meters throughout its territory through 2012.

Demand-response company Comverge provides an energy portal to TXU that allows  iThermostat users to program and measure energy use from them - not with real-time data, but with models based on typical energy usage for certain sizes of systems, said Edward Myszka, Comverge's chief operating officer.

The ZigBee-enabled iThermostats communicate to the utility via broadband Internet connections, meaning: "You didn't have to wait for that AMI [smart meter] deployment," Myszka said.

"We don't believe that broadband solutions will necessarily replace AMI solutions," he said. "But they will compliment them." Comverge's new Apollo software can integrate both forms of communication with Comverge's one-way pager-based control systems (see Comverge Demand-Response Software to Get in Front of Smart Grid).

How well the Internet fares as a gateway to utilities will depend on a lot of factors, including how consumers and utilities decide to spend their money. Control4's home automation systems cost at least $500 to install – not exactly a price aimed for the middle-of-the-road consumer.

As for utilities, they're likely eager to continue installing smart meters. If those smart meters become IP-enabled -- as they may become if a push for open standards in smart meter deployments continues to gain steam – that might render broadband connections redundant (see Smart Grid: A Matter of Standards).

On the other hand, if Cisco decides to follow up its entry into commercial building entry management with a push into homes, that could push the balance back towards broadband (see Cisco Jumps Into Energy Management for Computers, Buildings).

How the federal government decides to support different communications could also make a difference. The stimulus package now emerging from Congress contains $32 billion for grid infrastructure improvements, including $4.5 billion in grants for smart grid-related projects.

At the same time, however, the stimulus package also includes $8.2 billion for expanding broadband Internet access throughout the country, Gridpoint's Lewis pointed out. 

Tags: cisco, control4, distributech, gridpoint, smartgridcity