Siemens is already a giant in the hardware that makes up the smart grid, from the wind-powered and natural-gas-fired turbines that create electricity, all the way down through the transmission and distribution grid to the building systems that consume it. Now it wants its name added to the list of smart grid software giants as well.

This week’s Siemens Smart Grid Software Leadership Conference in San Francisco has been offering industry partners and potential customers a chance to take a look at what the German industrial giant has achieved so far. It’s been a fascinating couple of days, complete with in-depth sessions on how eMeter, the Silicon Valley startup that Siemens bought in late 2011, has become a core part of its smart grid software vision.

On a broader scale, Siemens has laid out a simplified IT architecture to support all its smart grid efforts, represented by two layers: the IT layer, served by eMeter’s EnergyIP platform, and the OT layer, built on Siemens' latest supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) platform, on top of all the software it makes to run its grid equipment. Then, of course, there’s the analytics layer, connecting to both IT and OT layers, that’s built on big-data expertise developed in-house and via projects underway with Teradata and other big data partners.

It’s very difficult to make a side-by-side comparison of what Siemens is doing against similar offerings from the competition. That list includes other grid giants like General Electric, ABB, Schneider Electric, Alstom or Toshiba/Landis+Gyr, and other significant, if smaller, technology players. It also includes a number of grid integration contenders across the globe, such as IBM, Cisco, Oracle, EMC, SAP, and SAS, to name a few.

If we’re to take this week’s progress report as evidence, however, it appears that Siemens may have a lead on its big grid competitors, in terms of the breadth of its existing market share and expertise, and in how it’s coming along in executing on its goals. Here’s a quick breakdown of the evidence.

1) Siemens is simply a giant in the OT side of the grid, and that includes software. As Thomas Zimmermann, CEO of Siemens’ smart grid services business unit, said in a Wednesday presentation, Siemens has been at work on this integrated smart grid software vision for some time, building on its internal software development expertise for its industrial controls, power and grid equipment, medical technology and transportation lines of business, he said.

For the grid, that means supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems (or for Siemens, its Spectrum Power system), which run about 1,600 grid control systems worldwide, he said. In January, Siemens announced the availability of its latest Spectrum 7 SCADA platform, built to serve as the grid-facing, OT side of Siemens’ two-layered plan.  

That OT layer extends into the distribution grid, where Siemens recently rolled out a new advanced distribution management system (ADMS), along with a case study (PDF) of how it has deployed a version with big Texas utility Oncor (which was already using Siemens’ transmission-scale energy management system, or EMS) and GIS partner Intergraph. Applications for that kind of integration include things like checking incoming data from distribution grid sensors or protection equipment to help predict half-hourly fluctuations of demand and supply, he said. 

2) EMeter and its EnergyIP software are playing a key role in Siemens’ plan. San Mateo, Calif.-based eMeter was already a big smart grid player when Siemens bought it in December 2011, with about 40 million smart meter endpoints under contract for utilities big and small. As Zimmermann noted Wednesday, “this is a sound and proven platform.” GTM Research named eMeter as a 2013 “innovation award” winner in the AMI infrastructure category earlier this year, based largely on its proven ability to scale and meet its claims of being software- and hardware-agnostic. 

But since the acquisition, Siemens has pretty much incorporated eMeter’s EnergyIP software platform for smart meter data management and analytics into a broader system, supporting everything from demand response to energy theft detection, he said.

Lisa Caswell, a long-time Silicon Valley software and internet startup executive who joined eMeter as president in January 2012, said in a Wednesday interview that the last year and a half has been given over to a process of methodically working with all the smart grid teams within Siemens, as well as with new acquisitions, such as Brazilian energy theft detection company Senergy. Siemens and eMeter have also expanded into China via partnership with metering giant Wasion, and the EnergyIP team is meeting with Siemens’ building technologies unit to work on ways to link smart grid and smart building data and systems, she said.

It’s noteworthy enough that Siemens has built the software from an acquired company into a core part of its platform -- not necessarily a commonplace accomplishment in the smart grid world. But according to Caswell, EnergyIP is also different from most other smart grid software “platforms” out there, in that the latest version, EnergyIP 8.0, is built to be a true development platform. There’s an important distinction to be made between integration partnerships, which are the most common model in smart grid, and development platforms, which can open the system to a much broader set of partners and independent developer contributions to the overall system’s goals, she said.

3) Siemens is integrating projects in the field to the elements that make up the core platform. In the past year and a half, Siemens has launched a number of projects that are on their way to sharing data across its two-tiered IT system, Zimmermann said.“Not all of these applications are already on one platform,” he said. But Siemens has laid the groundwork to make sure today’s deployments can someday tie into the platform as a whole, so that “you do not have to wait until we’re finished with our roadmap” to start implementing projects today, he said.

These projects range in scope and granularity, from end-users to nationwide energy markets. On the smaller scale, Siemens demand response management system (DRMS), launched in April 2012 with rural electric cooperative Wabash Valley Power and Canadian utility NB Power, is starting to tie its data into the EnergyIP 8.0. So is a project with Italian utility ENEL that links about 400 plug-in electric vehicles via distributed and centralized controls, he said.

On the large scale, Siemens has one of the world’s biggest virtual power plant (VPP) projects with German utility RWE. Unlike standalone microgrids, this VPP aggregates about 300 megawatts of generation capacity from about 200 hospitals, factories and other industrial and commercial sites big enough to have emergency backup or combined heat-and-power (CHP) systems.

Siemens and RWE launched the VPP as a pilot project in 2008, and have since scaled it up in stages. Last year, RWE said it expected to expand the amount of power it could market from the system from about 20 megawatts of power in 2012 to up to 200 megawatts by 2015 -- a measure of what share of the VPP’s total megawatts on call can be mustered up to meet market demands at a price that makes it worthwhile.

The system is also built to manage intermittent wind and solar power across Germany, Bernd Koch, who leads the VPP project for Siemens, said in a Wednesday interview. Today’s mix includes about 30 percent to 35 percent wind and solar power, which can rise and fall according to the weather. Today’s VPP draws on wind farms and solar panels spread across Germany, which allows Siemens to predict and manage system-wide fluctuations with weather forecasting tools, he said -- but distributed systems require deeper and more complex data collection and analysis to predict, he noted.

Siemens is working on new projects that tie these more complex distributed energy systems into its overall architecture, in the form of its Decentralized Energy Management System (DEMS), he said. One example, at an as-yet-unnamed rural North Carolina utility, is aimed at “surgical” demand response, he said -- tapping particular end-loads to help particular feeder lines that face stress under peak power or other conditions.

The end goal, Zimmermann said, is to tie together the “two different worlds” of IT and OT, “to make them talk, one data model, end to end.” As for what that might look like, he offered a tantalizing hint, saying that an unnamed European utility customer has linked up the EnergyIP and Spectrum DMS sides of its system. That customer is now running 1 million simulated meters, with an eye on optimizing power forecasts, locating faults, and monitoring outage and power quality status, he said.

4) Siemens knows why this all matters to utilities. Zimmermann opened his Wednesday presentation with an audiovisual representation of the difference between the old (current) way of integrating smart grid projects and what Siemens wants to do. The first, a spaghetti graph of tangled interfaces and siloed systems, was accompanied by a discordant swell of music, while Siemens’ simple layered version was accompanied by a lovely clip of baroque music -- appropriate, he said, due to its adherence to strict mathematical forms.

But beyond making utility engineers’ lives less full of discord, streamlining present and future grid operations into a common architecture also, “in the end, is investment protection,” he said. Utilities face a lot of uncertainty over future integration challenges, as well as the risk of assets left stranded by the march of technological progress, or shifts in regulatory and economic issues beyond their control. “With all the other issues we have on our plate,” he said, “we cannot afford silos.”

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