Over the past few years, we’ve been covering developments among contending powerline carrier (PLC) technologies, which use the same wires that carry electricity to send data. While uncommon in North America, PLC technologies are being used in Europe and Asia for everything from broadband home video services to transmitting data across the grid itself -- and, as with contending wireless technologies, various PLC technologies are striving for dominance across those markets.
This week’s European Utility Week conference in Amsterdam is bringing these competing technologies into focus, with smart meter networking technology and semiconductor manufacturers striving to stake their claims for dominance in particular technologies. At the same time, they’re also working hard to keep themselves open to whichever flavor of technology ends up on top in particular markets.
Let’s turn first to Qualcomm (QCOM) and HomePlug Green PHY, which has just made the leap from carrying data along household wiring and car-charging port connections to transmitting across the grid itself. On Tuesday, the communications semiconductor giant announced that State Grid Corp. of China is now using its technology to link smart meters to transformer-mounted utility data concentrator devices in order to monitor power use on the grid.
The meters, equipped with Qualcomm’s QCA7000 chips, have been piloted successfully by State Grid, the world’s largest utility, and are now being deployed at scale, Jim Zyren, marketing director for Qualcomm Atheros, said in an interview. That’s a brand new use for Green PHY, which has been been a player in the utility sector since 2010, when Atheros, the chipset maker bought by Qualcomm in 2011, won a Department of Energy grant to develop it for broader smart grid uses.
This meter-to-transformer pathway isn’t a new one for powerline technologies in general. In fact, most of Europe’s big smart meter deployments are using PLC in one form or another, and China appears to be banking on the technology for most of its massive smart meter deployment plans.
But Green PHY was originally developed to carry data from meters to “downstream,” in-building devices and networks -- a task for which most meter-to-transformer technologies aren’t well-suited. Conversely, while previous versions of Green PHY have had trouble bridging the long distances and retaining coherence amidst the “dirty” waveforms of grid power, “The way we got to this point with State Grid was by successfully demonstrating in the field that this solution was robust,” Zyren said. “They wouldn’t have deployed it without that.”
That means that, at least in theory, the same Green PHY technology now being used by State Grid to reach “upstream” from meters to utility backhaul nodes could also be extended to devices connected by wires in homes and businesses. Indeed, Qualcomm also announced Tuesday that it’s deploying Green PHY to link smart meters to individual apartments -- one niche that it could also fill in North America, where wireless smart meters in building basements would have a hard time reaching into apartments through concrete walls.
Qualcomm didn’t disclose the meter manufacturer it’s working with in China, but it’s far from the only chipmaker or networking vendor seeking a piece of what's set to become the world's biggest smart meter market. STMicroelectronics has claimed a leading role in Chinese smart meter PLC deployments, while Analog Devices is working with China’s Nanjing NARI, Accent is working with Chinese PLC comms maker Topscomm, and Semitech is putting its PLC chips in meters built by LangFang Gao Shan. Shanghai-based Miartech, backed by DFJ DragonFund (PDF) and Intel, has been named one of three technologies to guide PLC standards for the country, and San Jose, Calif.-based Echelon (ELON) which provides PLC networking for a good chunk of Europe’s smart meter deployments, has a joint venture with China’s Holley Metering.
Meanwhile, Europe has plenty of competing PLC technologies in the field. Big deployments include Echelon’s technology, the PRIME standard used in more than 2.5 million meters deployed by Spain’s Iberdrola and elsewhere in Europe; the Meters and More standard behind the 3.5 million meters deployed by Spain’s Endesa, a subsidiary of Italian utility Enel; and the G3-PLC technology behind France’s “Linky” meter networking plans, now being used for about 300,000 pilot meters, but expected to grow to 3 million meters by 2016 and some 32 million meters by 2020.
G3-PLC in particular is seen as a strong competitor, with features that include the all-important ability to transmit through transformers, which can block many other technologies. Last week, Tokyo utility TEPCO announced G3 as its favored PLC technology, along with the Wi-SUN wireless standard, for connecting the 27 million smart meters it’s deploying, a move that could serve as a trend-setter for Japan’s broader smart grid plans.
All in all, it’s a confusing welter of PLC technologies to choose from, putting the onus on technology vendors to build systems that can support a variety of technologies to come. On Tuesday, Italy-based Accent announced two new products aimed at making that integration easier: a new chipset built to work with a range of PLC and wireless technologies, and a combination of its comms technology and current sensor technology from U.K.-based Sentec, meant to work across a range of metering needs.
“A lot of these standards are still changing and are not yet ratified,” Michael Navid, Accent’s vice president of marketing and business development, said in an interview. “Now, these utilities can have the assurance they can start deployments, and have the ability to upgrade once the standards are set -- or as new features come along, they can upgrade over the air.”
The inclusion of Sentec’s Rogowski-coil-based current sensor technology on the same printed circuit board that carries Accent’s metrology and communications chips also means that meter makers can use the same off-the-shelf gear for everything from low-cost single-phase meters to high-accuracy polyphase meters, marketing director Ed Pazmino said.
Accent isn’t alone in staking its claim to chips that can fit the needs of multiple smart-meter communications technologies. This week’s announcements from European Utility Week include the Capistrano smart grid reference platform from Maxim (MXIM), which promises to combine GE, PRIME and GPRS modems with top-line metrology and security, and Texas Instruments’s launch of a new multi-PLC comms chipset and data concentrator module aimed at the European market. Let’s just say that there’s plenty of silicon for smart meter vendors and utilities to choose from.