Currently, most utilities are flying blind when it comes to seeing what happens beyond the sub-station.  Smart meters are supposed to fix this by pushing intelligence to the periphery of the grid.  But every meter, even a smart one, is a measurement device for collecting data, not a computing platform for building sophisticated applications.  Meter data needs to be gathered (typically by data concentrators or "head ends") then sent back to HQ over the "back-haul" utility network to a big database, like a meter data management system, before intelligent smart grid applications can benefit.  

Alas, the void between the meter and the enterprise -- so much opportunity, so much wasted space (and equipment).  What if there was intelligence at the neighborhood level?  Shouldn't I be able to use my neighbors' solar energy as long as I pay for it?  What if me and all my neighbors plug in our (2012) electric vehicles at the same time and blow the transformer off the pole, knocking us all off the grid?  Hardly sounds like progress to me.  

All of this (and more) could be managed in a wonderful little energy community called the neighborhood -- if only there were the digital intelligence to do it.  What's missing is a neighborhood computer -- one that the utility owns and operates, since I'm not about to give them mine, and they wouldn't want it even if I did.  But PCs make a lousy telephone pole decoration and utilities aren't about to buy a little computer shack in each neighborhood.

Last week, Echelon stepped into the neighborhood void when it announced two products.  The first product is a hardened programmable computer box that also makes a lovely phone pole decoration and runs the Linux open operating system.  The second is a development platform Echelon calls the ECoS (or Echelon Control System, which, gratuitous capitalization aside, is geek-chic shorthand for ecosphere), i.e., a platform that other developers can use to write applications, solve problems and make money.  

These products mark Echelon's entry into an emerging segment of distribution management beyond the sub-station.  Other players include Trilliant, which provides the UnitySuite Platform for managing its SecureMesh network devices (namely, meters, in-home devices and network assets), and Scheider Electric, which acquired Areva, a French company with a supervisory control and data access (SCADA) platform it calls eTerra.

Evidently, a lot of industry insiders are very excited about this new gear, including Duke Energy, which has placed the first order.  Understanding the hubbub requires a look at the technology predicament called the distribution system, which is where voltage is stepped down and delivered to you and me.

Mincing no words (and with no disrespect to the engineers of yesteryear), today's distribution system is a dogs' breakfast of old equipment, byzantine instrumentation, and disparate data formats.  ECoS (the software bit) provides an open (i.e., documented, programmable) platform for turning disparate data into a common format.  This means that once the geeks are done building device mappings, other hip (and findable) Linux and Eclipse developers can build applications to monitor power quality, make automatic adjustments, and even send messages to the homeowner or the utility -- beneath the sub-station level -- without bringing data all the way up to the data center.  

This type of distributed, federated computing and control, along with demand management and renewable integration, is what defines a smart grid.

But before developers can build value-added apps, they need a set of basic computing services, including data logging, scheduling and time functions, and thresholds logic and alerts (the big three monitoring functions needed to head off the 2012 EV transformer explosion).  Messaging to people, systems or other applications comes in handy, too. Check, check, and check -- ECoS provides all of these.  

According to Jeff Lund, VP of Business Development for Echelon, ECoS is an innovation. "No one else has provided the ability to integrate the data from these disparate devices.  Some people provide grid routers for data collection and analysis.  We are allowing action and control -- immediate -- from within the platform, as opposed to just collecting data.  Now, developers can design a system for preventing [local] faults as opposed to just getting messages out that a fault just happened."

Hmmm. Sounds suspiciously like an intelligent, self-healing grid to me.  

But this means Edge Control Nodes need to be installed across a dispersed distribution network -- a costly proposition. Is it worth it?  

Yes, according to Lund.  "Data would normally need to flow up to the head end, and frequently, so this will hammer the AMI network.  An alarm may happen less than once a year.  So you are transmitting lots of data up to the data center that isn't all that important. With ECoS and Edge Control Node, the potential for data reduction is not small, it can be massive. All the enterprise cares about is, did the alarm happen?  System operators and SCADA systems aren't interested in gathering and processing lots of inconsequential data."  

Echelon is positioning heavily around an open systems push that represents a significant marketecture departure from rivals like Scheider and Trillaint.  In keeping with the ECoS (phere) spirit, Lund is hoping third-party developers jump on board to start building other value-add applications in new and creative ways.  "What we see as the unique innovation is intelligent open control at the edge of the network and for any developer to be able to build applications at the edge of the network without additional hardware."  Lund hopes they will do so in new and creative ways that neither he, nor anyone at Echelon, can conceive.  He draws analogies to the way creative smart phone apps are built using native hardware features like cameras, GPS and other features.  This is heady stuff.

Isn't today's grid reliable enough?  Not really. Outages are increasing each year, hovering up around 124% over the last decade, according to Lund. And it isn't just the outages that matter.  Microprocessors are highly sensitive to fluctuations in voltage.  Subtle variations can reduce operating life, or cause failure.  Intermittent renewables and pushing power from the house to the grid don't help either.  

What's needed is a microgrid, and Lund sees ECoS as a platform for building them.  

"It [ECoS and ECN] turns neighborhoods into a microgrid."

Indeed, a microgrid may be what's needed to pull off the transformation of the grid, the crowning engineering achievement of the 20th century, into a platform for weaning ourselves off of fossil fuels -- something we hope is the crowning achievement of the 21st century.