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Comverge Demand-Response Software to Get in Front of Smart Grid

Jeff St. John: February 3, 2009, 5:07 PM
Comverge Inc. (NSDQ: COMV) has built a business installing its own hardware and software in homes to help utilities curtail residential power use and use one-way pager networks to control them. Now the East Hanover, N.J.-based company is launching software to get a piece of the demand-response action due to emerge from the installation of smart meter and Internet-based energy saving networks from other "smart grid" players. The "Apollo Platform," as Comverge calls its new software, is aimed at managing the two-way communications capabilities that smart meters and Internet-based energy management systems offer, as well as Comverge's one-way, pager-based control systems it's installed in projects with more than 500 utilities and other customers. Using those pager systems to power down homes during times of peak power demand has given Comverge the equivalent of 2.2 gigawatts of power under its control — a sizable resource for the utilities that use the company's services. But "Our legacy customers were intrinsically one-way systems," said Bud Vos, chief technology officer, and "our utility customers are now thoroughly engaged in smart grid deployments." In that way, Apollo could be seen as a way to keep Comverge's customers happy by adapting to the new way of doing things. It announced the software's existance at the DistribuTech utility industry conference in San Diego on Tuesday, but said the system is already part of two projects announced last month — Progress Energy, which is doing a big residential energy efficiency program in North and South Carolina, and Pepco Holdings Inc., which is doing a similar project in Maryland and Washington, D.C. Pepco is also planning to install smart meters for nearly 2 million customers over the coming years, meant to cut the utility's peak load by about 200 megawatts — and Comverge announced Monday that it would offer "installation and marketing services compatible" with that deployment. The Apollo Platform will give utilities a new way to connect to homes and their power-curtailing devices, as well as offer homeowners controls for smart thermostats and other in-home energy devices, as well as displays to show their energy use, based on approximations of a typical home's power use by size and types of systems installed. That's not as much data as being promised by rival in-home power monitoring display makers like Tendril Networks, which intends to get its data from smart meters themselves. But then, Comverge already has 4.5 million devices in homes, so it has a lot of customers already in hand. Still, potential rivals in the demand-response field who are starting out by basing their systems on smart meter or Internet-based deployments noted that Comverge could be making this move to avoid being left behind, technology-wise. Comverge's devices controlled by its one-way paging system could be considered as "stranded assets right now," said Michael Delage, vice president of business development for Energate, an Ottawa, Canada-based maker of home energy management devices. Energate, by the way, announced its own Comsumer Connected Demand Response system at DistribuTech on Tuesday, based on its own equipment that can "integrate seamlessly with Advanced Metering Infrastructure and the smart grid as it is built." Demand response is increasingly part of the overall smart meter pitch, whether it's through giving utilities control over home thermostats, appliances or outlets or giving homeowners the information they need to cut power use themselves — or a combination of both.

GM to Work With SF to Launch Volt

Ucilia Wang: February 3, 2009, 1:33 PM

General Motors plans to work with San Francisco and other cities to roll out its much-touted Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid-electric car that is scheduled for market launch next year.

Now, the cities are not in the business of selling cars. But they can make it easier for a company to do business through their permitting and other policy-making power. Plus, large cities often own large fleets of cars, making them good potential customers.

For companies that want to popularize electric cars of all kinds, seeking a municipal or state blessing is a good approach. Seeking help from cities that already have committed to popularizing electric cars is an even smarter -- and obvious -- strategy.

Last November, San Francisco and other Bay Area cities announced their plans to work with the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Better Place, which aims to set up a network of electric-car charging and batter-swapping stations.

Better Place executives have traveled the world seeking national and regional government support for its business plan, which in some cases involves working with the Nissan-Renault Alliance to bring electric cars to places where Better Place plans to deploy its networks.

Another Silicon Valley startup, Coulomb Technologies, has begun selling and installing electric-car charging devices in California. The company also is selling subscription services to use those charging stations.

GM said it also is working with utilities to make sure proper charging networks would be available to service its new electric cars.

Smart Grid Cross-Pollination at DistribuTech

Jeff St. John: February 3, 2009, 8:40 AM

Smart grid-related companies are getting up into each other’s business.

That’s the gist of the news coming out of the DistribuTech conference in San Diego on Tuesday morning. The business of the “smart grid???— that is, building two-way communications systems between utilities and their customers to measure and control power use — involves a lot of moving parts. Equipment, communications and software providers are forming increasingly tangled webs of partnerships and competitive stances.

Such deals were already coming out in advance of the conference (see DistribuTech Puts Spotlight on Smart Grid). Tuesday morning saw a few more emerge.

One was a deal between smart grid software developer Gridpoint and home control system maker Control4. The two companies said they would integrate Control4’s home energy manager, meant to give homeowners information and automated control over their power use, with Gridpoint’s software that integrates such systems with utilities.

Control4 is already working with GE Home Technologies, and Gridpoint is part of Xcel Energy’s SmartGridCity initiative in Boulder, Colo., which is a large-scale pilot project meant to show how a smart grid-connected community will work.

Software to help utilities manage the flood of data coming from millions of smart meters being deployed is one area that’s seen a lot of growth. On Monday, smart grid data management software maker eMeter landed a new deal with Texas utility CenterPoint Energy (NYSE: CNP), adding to its list of utilities that are using the San Mateo, Calif.-based startup’s software for more than 24 million smart meters (see EMeter: Data-Keeper for the Smart Grid).

On Tuesday, fellow smart grid data management software maker Ecologic Analytics announced it had also landed a deal with its own Texas utility, Oncor, to support its rollout of more than 3 million smart meters through 2012. Ecologic Analytics has a list of deals with utilities, including a big one with Pacific Gas & Electric Co.

The melding of different communications technologies for smart grid applications was also on the DistribuTech agenda Tuesday, with leading smart meter maker Itron (NSDQ: ITRI) announcing a partnership with business wireless networking company Digi International (NSDQ: DGII).

Digi makes networking technology that connects electronic devices via Ethernet, WiFi and cellular networks, which will give Itron enhanced abilities to connect capacitor banks, metering products and other in-grid devices in a communications network, the companies said.

Itron earlier said it would work with home energy monitoring and display maker Tendril to license Tendril’s software for loading into Itron’s hardware — a deal the Boulder, Colo.-based startup has made available to a number of smart meter makers (see Tendril Targets Meter Makers).

While Itron and other meter makers ink deals with networking and software companies, others are moving into new equipment. SmartSynch, which installs its cellular networks communications technology in smart meters from GE, Elster, Itron and others, announced Tuesday that it’s coming out with its own piece of Internet protocol (IP)-addressable equipment to link to other communications networks.

SmartSynch’s new Direct Control eXternal device promises to deliver a host of smart grid solutions, including controlling homeowners back-up generators during peak power demand times and monitor steam levels under city streets.

Expect more of these kinds of announcements to emerge as DistribuTech rolls on. After all, with smart grid companies becoming the favorite of green VC investment, and billions of dollars of federal stimulus aimed at the industry, there’s plenty of room for cooperation and competition alike (see Draft Stimulus Plan Has Billions for Smart Grid, For 2009, It's All About Smart Grid and Storage and Acquisitions in Smart Grid: Get Used to It).

If Not a Gas Tax, Increased Battery Subsidies

Darryl Siry: February 3, 2009, 7:39 AM
Previously, I suggested that our country should implement a gas tax. Several other blogs picked this up and the commentary was fairly vitriolic. The gist of the nasty stuff was the notion that raising the gas tax was an attack on families struggling to survive in this recession. I respect this point of view, if not the unseemly way many express it. The point I was making, and continue to make, is that the current economic situation will make it increasingly difficult to maintain the momentum we have built to address the longer term issues we face as a society. The progress on this front has been very positive and it will take extraordinary leadership to sustain it given the short term economic challenges and the powerful forces of populism. We need to do something radically different to re-orient our hyper-consumerist society into one that is sustainable in the long run. We cannot continue the slash and burn type of development that the industrial revolution brought. A major piece of the puzzle is the shift of automotive transport from petroleum to electrical power. The technology is maturing and we are in the midst of a real shift to practical electric transportation. Nearly every large automobile manufacturer has announced plans for plug-in hybrids or pure electric cars. The shift is taking place. It is inevitable. The only questions that remain are how far and how fast. The answer lies in the relation of two things -- the cost of petroleum and the cost of batteries. For the sake of simplicity, lets say the price of a gallon of gas and the price of a kilowatt hour of energy storage. Today, the costs of automotive battery storage (expressed in $/kWh) have improved relative to just 10 years ago, but they are still too high to be economical for mainstream automobile buyers. With today's gas prices, no EV manufacturer can credibly say that purchasing an EV will save you money over the typical life of a car purchase. They may point out the savings in gas costs, but if you account for the initial cost of batteries, and potentially the required replacement costs of the battery, the numbers don't pencil. In the absence of any incentives, the market for EVs today would be for technology and/or environmental enthusiasts who are willing to pay a healthy premium for cool technology or for reduced CO2 emissions. The good news is that this is a healthy, attractive market. The bad news is that it is a niche market relative to the enormous automotive market (incidentally, a "niche" business in the automobile business can be a billion dollar business, but it won't move the dial from an environmental perspective at that scale.) For electric vehicles to become mainstream, either battery costs must come down significantly or gas prices must rise significantly. Over time, fossil fuels will become scarcer and therefore more expensive. It can also be assumed that over time, technological innovation will bring battery costs down. This is why I say the shift is inevitable. But if you want to accelerate this shift, you must either make gas artificially more expensive (via a tax) or make batteries artificially cheaper (via an incentive.) So while I have criticized the political courage of our leaders in not confronting the issue of increasing the gas tax, I must acknowledge the significant battery subsidies that were passed last fall and have just become effective January 1st 2009. If you aren't aware, the current tax credits on the books start with $2,500 for a car with a small, 4kWh battery (assume 10 miles usable electric range) and max out at $7,500 for a car with a 16kWh battery (assume 40 miles usable electric range in a PHEV configuration, or about 70 miles in an EV configuration) Those aren't small numbers. At $468 to $625/kWh in subsidy (depending on the size of the battery, up to 16kWh), you are looking at a tax credit that offsets more than half the total cost of the battery. But I would argue that it isn't enough. Specifically, the cap of 16kWh effectively maximizes the benefit for plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt (this is not a coincidence!) but the per kWh subsidy decreases as batteries get larger, as you might commonly see in pure EV applications. What this means is that under the current incentive scheme pure EV sedans, which are more efficient and emit less CO2, are price-disadvantaged to plug-in hybrid models and to their pure gasoline competitors. By maintaining the current formula but eliminating the cap of 16kWh, EV manufacturers would have a level playing field with plug-in hybrids and would approach cost-competitiveness with their gasoline competitors. With such a subsidy, an electric family sedan with substantial range could start to be cost competitive with it's gas-only competitors. Over time, the subsidies could be phased out as the natural forces drive energy costs up and battery costs down. Perhaps this approach could accomplish the same result for accelerating the electrification of the automobile without inspiring the public outrage that a gas tax seems to bring. Daryl Siry is the former chief marketing officer for Tesla Motors. He now consults on marketing and the automotive industry. You can read more here: