The U-SNAP Alliance - a group that want to make in-home energy management devices with communications that can be switched in and out as utility networks and technology advances demands - has just landed some pretty big partners to back up its idea.
Also on board are utilities Alliant Energy, CLECO and Portland General Electric. Those three utilities are, perhaps not coincidentally, using smart meters from Sensus, which is a founding member of the alliance (see U-SNAP: Modular Home Energy Communications).
The other alliance founder is Radio Thermostat Co. of America, which makes smart thermostats that already come with a slot for the U-SNAP modules it would like to see made en masse to solve a thorny problem facing the home energy management industry.
That problem, in short, is what language those devices will speak - or rather, which communications standard they will use. There are many to choose from - ZigBee HomePlug, Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, WiMax, FM radio, powerline carrier, or one of the many proprietary wireless systems that range the electromagnetic spectrum (see The Smart Home, Part I).
Thus the U-SNAP Alliance, which has come up with the idea of making appliances, home energy sensors, etc. with slots that can fit communications modules that can be switched in and out, depending on which utility service territory they're aimed at, or as technology brings about newer and better standards.
The ZigBee wireless protocol is emerging as a favorite for such in-home networking through the growing list of smart meter deployments underway in North America. In Europe, powerline carrier technology has taken the lead (see RF Mesh, ZigBee Top North American Utilities' Smart Meter Wish Lists).
But utilities agree that they'll need a variety of communications to serve all their customers. Wireless doesn't work well for apartment buildings where basement-housed smart meters have yards of concrete in between them and the apartments they're trying to reach, for example.
And utilities that haven't installed smart meters yet may want to use radio, pager, cellular, Wi-Max or other such "broadcast" type communications to directly control energy-saving home devices - as, indeed, they've been doing for years through demand response providers like Comverge, a new U-SNAP member.
The unsettled marketplace presents a particularly tricky problem for companies like GE and Whirlpool as they plan to build "smart" appliances that can power down at utility or homeowner command to save energy.
After all, nobody wants to mass-produce the smart appliance version of the Betamax home video recorder - a distinct possibility if one's chosen communication standard fails to gain widespread market acceptance (see The Smart Appliance: Waiting for the Market to Choose Communication Standards).
GE has been toying with the idea of a U-SNAP-like modular solution for enabling their smart appliances for some time. This week's announcement would seem to cement its commitment to the modular solution (see GE's Smart Appliances: Smarter With GE Home Energy Manager).
But the alliance still has a way to go before a wide host of appliances and other devices are on the market with ports ready to take U-SNAP modules, said Barry Haaser, U-SNAP Alliance executive director.
One exception, of course, is Radio Thermostat, which is already making thermostats that take U-SNAP modules. Right now, those modules can come with ZigBee, as well as the wireless protocol ZWave, Haaser said (see Sigma Snaps Up Perennial Smart Grid Hopeful Zensys).
They can also support WiFi - WiFi chipmakers GainSpan and ZeroG Wireless are U-SNAP members. While WiFi has so far gotten less traction than ZigBee as an in-home energy networking solution, Haaser said a "major utility" in the United States is soon to announce plans to use for its home energy management plans (see Get Ready for the WiFi Thermostat).
The thermostat modules can also be controlled via Radio Data System, the technology that allows small amounts of data to be carried over FM broadcast signals, which is a method being contemplated by GE as well. U-SNAP member eRadio makes such RDS-enabled modules (see The Latest Players in Smart Grid: Radio Stations).
As for Sensus, U-SNAP modules will also support the company's FlexNet radios that use licensed spectrum to link its smart meters to utility backhaul networks, Haaser said.
That could allow the meter maker to transmit to U-SNAP-enabled home energy devices without an intermediary technology like ZigBee or WiFi, although it isn't clear to what extent utilities using Sensus meters are contemplating that as a route into homes (see Green Light post).
While the utility members of U-SNAP now constitute a club of Sensus customers, Haaser said the alliance will soon be joined by a host of other utilities that use other smart meter vendors.
And other communications technologies, such as various powerline carrier options and the wireless mesh communications from EnOcean, could be next to join, Haaser said.
Smart meter networking startup Trilliant is also on board, and it has hundreds of utility customers and millions of meters and other in-home devices using its networking technology (see Trilliant Buys SkyPilot for End-to-End Smart Grid Communications).
And Korea's NURI Telecom, another alliance member, is a major player in connecting energy devices in Korean apartments, Haaser said.
Google represents more of a wild card for the alliance, since it just contacted U-SNAP about joining on Friday, Haaser said. The Internet search giant is developing a home energy management platform called PowerMeter, and has named a host of utilities and smart meter maker Itron as partners in the project
But Google hasn't yet said what kinds of devices and communications standards it intends to incorporate into the platform (see Lu's PowerMeter Update: Open APIs, More Partners Soon).
Still, "U-SNAP allows consumers choice on what method of device interconnection works best for them. Giving consumers choice is a fundamental value for Google," a Google spokesperson said via email.