Think of a good utility-sponsored home energy management (HEM) system as being like the latest digital gadget you’re hoping to get this Christmas.

It’s got to be simple enough for a child -- or a grandparent -- to set up and use if it’s going to make it out of the box. It had better be engaging and useful on a day-to-day basis, to avoid being put away in the closet come January. And it had better be upgradable to the new technologies coming out next year, and the year after that, if it’s to be worth what you paid for it.

Over the past half-decade, Ceiva, the Burbank, Calif.-based maker of wirelessly connected digital picture frames, has quietly grown a significant list of utility customers in the HEM space by putting these kinds of concepts into practice. Now it’s got a major new partner, smart meter maker Itron, to roll out its platform to potentially millions of new customers.

That’s not necessarily saying much, considering how disappointingly slow the HEM market has been to develop so far. But Itron and Ceiva say that they’ve put together a compelling package of integrated hardware, software and services that could overcome the barriers to more widespread HEM adoption.

The test case for this proposition is Worcester, Mass., where utility National Grid has put Ceiva in charge of enabling, managing and tracking a myriad of in-home displays, smart thermostats, and web and mobile platforms for its 15,000-customer smart grid pilot project. Itron, which is supplying the smart meters, has integrated its OpenWay network management platform into Ceiva’s home-facing system, dubbed EntryWay, which brings all these behind-the-meter assets and data back to the utility.

This depth of smart meter-to-HEM integration is rare in today’s utility world, Stephen Johnson, Itron’s consumer energy management product line manager, said in an interview last week. So is Ceiva’s flexibility in seeking out, provisioning, monitoring and controlling multiple devices using multiple communications protocols, in ways that are important to utilities, he said.

Far more common is a setup in which one vendor takes over, he said. That could be a residential demand response provider like Comverge, a smart thermostat vendor like Nest, a home energy management software platform like Tendril or a customer efficiency engagement offering from Opower. But in a world of bring-your-own-thermostat programs, broadband home security systems and the Nest-Google home automation juggernaut, single-vendor approaches aren’t an option for utilities anymore, he said.

That fact hasn’t been lost on the aforementioned competitors, which are busy integrating and setting standards with one another. Ceiva and Itron aren’t trying to replace all of these companies either, Johnson noted.

Rather, they’re positioning themselves as something he called a “demand response control application,” or DRCA. Think of it as the behind-the-meter interlocutor to the demand response management systems (DRMS) from vendors like Alstom, Siemens, General Electric, AutoGrid or Lockheed Martin, extending those utility capabilities from smart meters to multiple devices.

National Grid’s pilot is informing Massachusetts’ statewide smart meter rollout plans, and Itron and Ceiva expect a big California utility to announce that it’s using this DRCA capability in the next few months, Johnson said. Those will provide the world two important test cases for this new approach to bridging the utility-customer digital divide. Here’s how they've gotten to where they are so far.

Filling in the HEM gaps with hardware and software

When Itron first started working with Ceiva at Burbank Water and Power about five years ago, “to be honest, I greeted that invitation with a bit of skepticism,” Johnson said. “I needed another HEM in-home display vendor to integrate with like I needed a hole in the head.”

Back then, smart meter makers like Itron were being asked to integrate to a whole host of HEM and home-area network devices being rolled out under stimulus-funded programs. But many of the companies being picked were using different versions of technology, and “they were packaging the whole thing, and the whole thing was locked into one vendor,” he said.  

“Suffice it to say, in the days when we were working with a broad ecosystem of devices, it was one thing to say it has the ZigBee smart energy certification, and another thing to say with confidence that when I walk away, it’s going to do everything that’s [compatible] with the meter, without dropping off the network and without being a bad citizen on the network for other devices,” he said.

But a year later, when Ceiva demonstrated its software at Itron’s Liberty Lake, Wash. headquarters, “it really opened my eyes,” he said. “They did not think of going to market with their Smart Energy-enabled frame without spending a year with us, saying, ‘Here’s the data, here’s how you should interact with these clusters in Smart Energy Profile.’”

Beyond that, “Ceiva showed us how we could mix and match multiple components, and create a unique experience for consumers using devices that could be leveraged as utilities start layering different offerings on top of that,” he said. This kind of groundwork allowed Itron to have faith in Ceiva’s goals beyond making sure the system worked, he noted.

“First, they were the first company to take not just energy and consumption data from the meter, but also to take interval data and conduct analytics from it,” he said. Second, “they were going to create an experience around thermostat control and load control that have historically been passive from a consumer perspective.” In other words, they were going to market the product.

Itron got a taste of Ceiva’s approach working with it at Southern California municipal utilities Burbank Water and Power and Glendale Water and Power. Both are using Ceiva’s picture frames for everything from peak power and water shortage alerts to city street work and Christmas tree removal schedules. Ceiva’s slick advertising material stood out in a sea of simpler energy dashboards and red-and-green alert notices, he said. (It helps that people buy picture frames with the express purpose of looking at them a lot, he added.)

Glendale was also where Itron opened its Enterprise Edition database to Ceiva to incorporate water and natural gas metering data into its analytics, Johnson noted. “Again, that was yet another eye opener for us,” he said. “IEE is one of our flagship products, it’s managing tons of smart metering data,” including many deployments with utilities using actual meters other than Itron’s. “But we never really considered a consumer dimension to that, beyond basic web presentment.” While Glendale’s project has since been set back by city budget shortfalls, Itron and Ceiva have expanded on this data integration in new projects, he said, including National Grid.

The behind-the-meter smart grid extension

Wannie Park, Ceiva's vice president of utility solutions, described the EntryWay platform as the “apps wizard” for the roughly 4,500 households taking part in National Grid’s home energy pilot. The utility is testing four different approaches as part of its research -- web portals from Simple Energy, Ceiva’s picture frames, smart thermostats from Carrier, and homes that get both picture frames and thermostats, plus some smart plugs and load control devices.

Ceiva is the prime contractor for all of these home configurations, and “we have relationships with all these vendors to make sure the apps work nice and smoothly,” Park said. “EntryWay allows an installer, or customer, to provision the device and join the meter,” and continues to monitor each device to know if it’s getting a signal, if it’s been turned off, and other such critical pieces of information for a utility that needs verifiable data to show its research partners.

“Once that happens, everything goes up through the meter to [verify that] these approved devices have joined this specific meter,” he said. “It populates the EntryWay, and then it communicates with the meter -- and everyone’s got a very robust database of everything that’s out there.”

From there, EntryWay can share common data with everything Itron’s OpenWay informs, and visa versa, he said. It also allows Ceiva to open the data to various third parties that want to develop apps of their own, much as startups like SmartThings and IFTTT (If this, then that) have done in linking mobile devices and Facebook posts to various home automation controls, he said.

Much like Opower and Tendril, Ceiva is delving into past and present data to create profiles of each customer, he said. “We can figure out the predictability of an event and how things work out. Take a demand response event, a 3-degree temperature change. We can track opt-outs minute by minute, when people are turning things off and on, and whether they opt out in the first fifteen minutes or not.”

Ceiva has also worked out the kinks to delivering over-the-air upgrades to multiple HEM devices using ZigBee, Wi-Fi and broadband, repopulating utility databases after meters are swapped, and other such nitty-gritty utility quality-of-service concerns, Park said. These are all valuable to utilities, given that the alternative is to have call centers swamped with customer complaints about systems that don’t work, or hiring, training and dispatching professional installers at a cost of $200 per home, he noted.

These kinds of capabilities provide Itron with the confidence to push its OpenWay platform into Ceiva’s behind-the-meter territory, Johnson noted. 

“The EntryWay platform essentially extends OpenWay to allow multiple device provisioning,” he said, based on its intimate knowledge of all the devices at each grid endpoint, whether they’re communicating, whether they’re using energy, how likely they are to opt out of a power-saver alert or price offer based on past events. “All of that stuff can be computed and presented by Ceiva as an abstraction,” he said -- providing a relatively reliable understanding of what each home can do for the grid, and just when it can do it.

This concept isn’t unique, of course. Silver Spring Networks has been delivering reliable demand response results through smart meters and thermostats for Oklahoma Gas & Electric, and it is working on enhanced, household-specific capabilities through its SilverLink Sensor Network partners. Consert, a startup bought by Toshiba’s Landis+Gyr, is providing home-by-home, near-real-time load control for San Antonio utility CPS, and startup AutoGrid is linking multiple thermostats for utilities in Texas and the Pacific Northwest.  

Meanwhile, wirelessly connected devices are starting to propagate throughout the built environment, whether they’re part of the energy picture or not. Itron has been embedding its networking software into devices like electric-vehicle chargers, solar inverters, smart thermostats and load control switches, and “we’re working very closely with Ceiva on that as well, so that those become other nodes on the home area network that they can collect data from [to perform] better energy disaggregation -- not with analytics, but with actual measurement,” he said.

These kinds of capabilities aren’t in production yet, he noted, “but it’s something that’s needed in a big way.”