India’s unprecedented blackouts this week were triggered by a problem that isn’t unique to India’s grid: too much peak power demand and not enough peak power supply on hot afternoons. In India’s case, peak demand during hot summer afternoons has outstripped supply by as much as 10 percent at the critical times when it’s needed to avoid planned blackouts, or much worse.

Air conditioning is a big part of that problem. More and more of India’s 1.3 billion people are entering the middle class, and they’re buying the power-hungry status symbols to fit, such as flat-screen TVs, dishwashers, home entertainment systems, and central air and window-mounted AC units. But while most of those things can be turned off at times of grid emergency, air conditioning exists to run full-bore during the hottest days of the year, creating a peak problem that’s hard to manage.

Maybe PowerWatch can help. Since 2010, the Canadian home energy management startup has been working with Indian utilities in Delhi, Mumbai and elsewhere to hook up air conditioners to utility control platforms via wireless networks, creating a web of peak demand load that can be turned down, cycled or otherwise manipulated to save the grid from peak-driven blackouts.

PowerWatch, founded in 2003 as a home energy automation technology provider for new-built homes, found itself scrambling for new markets after the real estate crash of 2008, CEO Janeen Stodulski told me in an interview last month. That’s how the company joined up with a Canadian trade delegation to India in late 2009, which led to its contact with North Delhi Power Ltd., its first partner on the subcontinent.

Since then, the Oakville, Ontario-based company has deployed with Reliance Energy/BSES and B.E.S.T. in Mumbai, as well as with Torrent Energy in Gujarat state, she said. Tata Power, the energy arm of the Tata business empire, is a major partner through its ownership of North Delhi Power and customers in Mumbai and other competitive markets in India, she added.

In the North Delhi project, Cooper Power, which was recently acquired by Eaton for $11.8 billion, provides the load controllers that attach to window-mounted air conditioners or central air units to control power cycling and reduction via a gateway and automation controller, Stodulski said. Apartments and commercial spaces are also connected to circuit transformers to measure actual power, she said.

PowerWatch, for its part, manages the interplay of demand response signals coming from the utility and energy and status data coming from the ACs and CTs back to it, she said. Everything’s networked via GPRS wireless, conveniently provided by Tata Communications. The utility gets the ability to tell the ACs what to do and see what that translates to in real power usage, in real time -- not hours or days after the fact.

The customer, on the other hand, sees a display screen with up-to-the-minute energy data, along with a chart of power usage and cost over time, and a set of control options. That can mean handing control over to the utility for emergency shutdowns in exchange for a rebate, or tweaking the thermostat to shave money off the power bill.

PowerWatch sees opportunities similar to India’s in places like Brazil and other parts of South America, Stodulski said. Right now, most of its business has been in the smart-metered, time-of-use energy pricing world of its home Ontario province, where it’s working with “a number of committed utilities” to roll out its home energy management gateway early next year, she said.

The rollouts will include an in-home wireless display to help utilities meet rules on giving customers data on their new time-of-use plans, which charge high prices in peak times in exchange for super-low nighttime and weekend rates. It also includes a gateway that comes with U-SNAP enabled communications that can support Wi-Fi, Z-Wave, ZigBee, cellular or even FM radio, depending on the utility’s needs, she said.

PowerWatch has more competitors on its home continent, of course. Literally dozens of home energy startups are being tested in utility pilots around the country, with the likes of Tendril, EnergyHub, EcoFactor, AlertMe, Energate, Honeywell and many others, linking to time-of-use pricing or smart meters in one way or another.

So far PowerWatch has worked with smart meters from Trilliant and Sensus in Ontario, and with in-home device makers like Cooper Power, Stodulski said. But she sees an even bigger market in the service areas of utilities that aren’t planning a full-bore AMI smart meter deployment anytime soon.

That can include the hundreds of utilities that are still paying off their investment on a last-generation, AMR or “semi-smart” metering system that still have ten years or so left on its twenty-year asset life, as well as small utilities that can’t find the money, she said.

To get to those old meters, PowerLink has partnered with Blue Line Innovations, the BASED maker of a sensor that can capture and upload data from old-fashioned electromechanical meters. Blue Line has deployed its PowerCost Monitor devices in some 200,000 homes and has worked with more than 100 utilities to link them up to their customers.

While most homeowners may not be willing to spend the $99 and up for the privilege of knowing their energy use, utilities may find that a lot cheaper than a full-bore smart meter deployment, Stodulski said. Blue Line’s sensors clip onto old meters and convert their readings into digital data for upload via broadband or wireless networks. Except for the control part, that’s essentially what most smart meters today are used for.

What’s more, Blue Line’s devices can send real-time power usage data every minute or so, compare it to up-to-date pricing information being pushed to them via the internet, and set controls for smart thermostats, auto on-off switches for lights and power strips, and other energy-saving tasks. Most smart meters don’t have the bandwidth to do that, meaning that home broadband (or maybe mobile broadband) is being called in to make that connection.

That information can also be taken back to a utility and used for analytics and planning, or serve as the input to direct load control and demand response programs, she noted. Again, that’s a feature many AMI deployments promise to deliver, but fewer utilities are taking advantage of, according to a recent survey from Oracle.  

As for India, it’s struggling with keeping its already decrepit grid from falling apart, making smart grid investment less of a priority. Whether or not networked air conditioning controls could have played a part in avoiding this week’s blackout will await a full accounting of the chain of failures that led to it. But it’s hard to imagine that it could have made things any worse.