DistribuTECH, the country’s annual smart grid showcase, is starting off with a bang in San Diego this week. We’ve already covered a few big announcements from Silver Spring Networks and AutoGrid, Space-Time Insight, Varentec and Comverge, to name a few.

Here are some more important stories coming out this morning, highlighting the evolving nature of products, business plans and partnerships in the space.

- First off, we should explain to readers who happen to be in San Diego for DistribuTECH what all the pedicab ads mentioning Elster’s new Callisto system are about. On Tuesday, the German smart metering giant officially unveiled a new platform for its utility and smart grid partners, which extends its work linking smart meter data to transformer monitoring, outage management, voltage regulation and other smart grid functions.

“Callisto is basically an application package that will take information from data collection, move it into data management, and then provide analytics, provide command and control,” is how Joe Orlando, Elster vice president of strategy, described it. Key to that concept is the idea of stackable applications, in which partners of Elster are “stacking” their software capabilities on top of Callisto’s core data and analytics.

So far, Elster has enlisted partners including ABB, SAIC, Milsoft, Survalent, Dominion Power and others, he said. We’ve covered some of these partnerships, such as Elster’s work with Dominion Power’s Edge platform for managing grid voltage with the help of smart meter data.

Elster’s Callisto platform, or at least its antecedent, is also serving as the core smart meter functionality for SAIC’s smart grid services business, Orlando told me. SAIC has signed up utilities like Colorado’s United Power, Vermont’s Green Mountain Power and four remote villages in Alaska as customers for its grid-as-a-service offering, which includes data analytics and operational support.

- Speaking of smart grid as a service, General Electric has been building up its own grid service offering since late last year, and has more recently launched a full-blown assault on the grid side of the “industrial internet,” connecting devices that include smart meters and other grid devices.

On Tuesday, GE unveiled Grid IQ Insight, the latest addition to its suite of software tools, focused on pulling data from multiple sources to both predict and fix grid failures like power outages or equipment malfunctions. Beyond all the smart meter, grid sensor and distribution management data it’s pulling, GE’s software also includes a data stream unusual for industrial networks: social media sources like Facebook and Twitter, which are useful ways to get info from customers and put it to use.

- We’ve covered the trend of leveraging existing smart meter networks to enable other grid functions like distribution automation. But what about laying a DA communications network first, and then networking smart meters on top of it?

That’s the core concept behind Trilliant’s new enhanced version of its SecureMesh WAN (wide-area network) launched this week. The Redwood City, Calif. smart grid networking company, which bought long-range, broadband wireless provider SkyPilot back in 2009 and integrated it with its existing mesh and cellular networking in 2010, has now beefed up the system to provide 20 megabits-per-second connectivity, 7 millisecond-per-hop latency (speed of communication), broader range and other additions, like new technology for separating and prioritizing network traffic.

Most smart meters don’t need anything like 20 mbps and 7-millisecond latency to do their jobs -- but distribution automation applications do. Trilliant’s first new customer for the technology, Tampa Electric Co., plans to start out with DA and substation automation, but eventually wants to add smart metering to the network, Rob Conant, Trilliant’s chief marketing officer, told me in an interview.

- While utility-owned broadband communications are one option for the smart grid, so is cellular. Itron, the big smart meter maker that bought cellular meter networking startup SmartSynch last year, took another step into the cellular fray this week with a new partnership with Qualcomm.

Under the terms of the partnership, Itron will use Qualcomm's Gobi MDM8x15 chipsets in its meters, which will allow them to work with 2G, 3G or perhaps even 4G LTE cellular technologies around the world. The two didn’t disclose just which markets or types of smart meter applications they’re targeting with their new cellular meters.

It’s an interesting move for Itron, which already has SmartSynch’s cellular technology under its umbrella, as well as a first-ever residential smart meter deployment that connects directly via cellular with Michigan utility Consumers Energy (though that project is using Elster meters, not Itron meters). Itron is also working closely with Deutsche Telekom to embed the carrier’s SIM cards in its meters, to bring cellular connectivity to its work in Europe as well.

Pretty much every other smart meter vendor (Silver Spring Networks, Elster, Aclara, et al.) is adding cellular connectivity to the list of communications they support, driven by a steep drop in the prices carriers are charging utilities for that option, as well as some hard work on the part of the likes of AT&T, Verizon and Sprint in the U.S., Deutsche Telekom in Europe, and NTT in Japan to support the specific needs of utilities.  

As for Itron and Qualcomm, while they’re focusing on smart meters at present, “The same platform can be used in distribution automation applications, or any grid application you can think of, where you need cellular connectivity,” Andy Wood, director of business development for Qualcomm’s smart energy business, told me in a Tuesday interview. 

Tags: business partnerships, distributech, elster, ge, itron, qualcomm, smart meters, trilliant