Two weeks ago, General Electric made a big splash in the world of the Internet of Things, or, as GE likes to call it, the “industrial internet.” In a series of high-profile announcements, the global energy and engineering giant laid out its plan to add networking and distributed intelligence capabilities to more and more of its devices, ranging from aircraft engines to industrial and grid control systems, and start analyzing all that data to drive big new gains in efficiency across the industries it serves.

That includes the smart grid, of course. GE is a massive grid player, alongside such competitors as Siemens, ABB, Alstom, Schneider Electric and Eaton/Cooper Power. But in terms of scope, GE and Siemens stand apart in that they make everything from natural gas and wind turbines, to the heavy transmission and distribution gear -- transformers, sensors, switches and the like -- that delivers it to end users.

GE and its competitors also have their own lines of industrial communication, networking and control gear for distribution automation (DA) tasks on the grid, of course. Unlike most of the above-named competitors, however, GE is also a big maker of smart meters – although the networking technology that links up all those meters tends to come from other partners.

So we’ve got the technological underpinnings for a true Internet of things environment on the smart grid. But who’s managing it all on the back end? Right now, utilities tend to run their own data centers and back-office control rooms. But legacy billing, customer service and enterprise resource planning systems don’t easily integrate with the new breed of data coming at them from the smart grid. Indeed, we’ve got a host of IT giants like Cisco, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle, SAP, Infosys, Wipro and many more offering smart grid software services and integration, aimed at making sure data from smart meters, grid sensors and other formerly siloed technologies can be freely shared across the enterprise.

Perhaps the most important stepping stone for GE in moving its smart grid business into the “industrial internet” age is to capture its own share of this future market in smart grid integration. GE’s “Grid IQ Solutions as a Service” business, launched last year, represents that effort. In a move increasingly being rolled out by grid giants and startups alike, GE is moving the smart grid to the cloud -- in this case, dedicated servers in its GE Digital Energy data center in Atlanta, Ga. -- and offering utilities the opportunity to choose from a list of products and functions they’d like to deploy, all for a structured fee.

In the year since it launched, GE’s smart grid service has landed two city utilities, Norcross, Ga. and Leesburg, Fla., as named customers for its first SaaS product line, the Grid IQ Connect platform. That’s essentially a smart meter deployment run and managed by GE working with unnamed AMI partners, Todd Jackson, SaaS product line leader for GE Digital Energy, said in a Tuesday interview.

GE has lined up partners to provide a host of AMI networking flavors, including the mesh networking that dominates in U.S. smart meter deployments to date, as well as point-to-multipoint and cellular solutions, Jackson said. That’s not unlike GE’s current smart metering business model, in which it works with partners such as Silver Spring Networks, Trilliant, and others that add their own communications gear to GE’s core meters.

GE’s new role as back-end IT services provider to its Grid IQ Connect customers means that GE is also bringing a lot more software expertise to the fore, Jackson noted. While its AMI partners tend to provide the networking and meter data management aspects of the deployment, GE is providing about half of the remaining IT functionality, he said -- including the core task of hosting all its partners’ software on its own dedicated servers. GE has also been rolling out new feature sets for its smart-grid-as-a-service platform, including prepay options for smart meters, as well as its Grid IQ Restore, which adds outage detection and management to the array of options for its customers.

Expanding the Service Set With Demand Response

Earlier this year, GE also took a step beyond the utility and into the homes and businesses that they serve, launching its Grid IQ Respond platform. Essentially, it’s a version of GE’s demand response technology offered over the cloud, and is currently being rolled out with three unnamed utilities, two in the United States and one in Europe, Jackson said.

Right now the projects are mostly focused on homes, he explained, and most of those are connecting to load control switches, attached to major household loads like pool pumps, water heaters and air conditioners, that the utility can switch off and on to help manage peak power demands. A few million homes across the U.S. have these kinds of radio or pager-operated load control switches installed, usually in exchange for rebates or cheaper power rate offers from utilities desperate to curb their customers’ appetite for expensive peak power.

At the same time, competitors in this business, such as Honeywell, Eaton/Cooper Power, Comverge and others, have been busy working on their own software-as-a-service models, complete with cloud-hosted applications and increasing options for networking end-devices in homes and businesses. And of course, we’ve got literally dozens of startups competing for the still-nascent market for in-home energy management devices and the networks that can connect them to utilities, as well as the internet at large.

GE, which is a huge appliance maker, has its own version of a home energy management device, called the Nucleus. But it hasn’t rolled it out to market yet, preferring to keep it in pilot projects so far, and Jackson said there aren’t any immediate plans to include it in GE’s Grid IQ Respond offerings.

As for target markets, GE is largely looking at municipal utilities and cooperatives, which tend to lack the big budgets and capital expenditure recovery mechanisms of larger investor-owned utilities (IOUs), Jackson said. At the same time, GE does offer its smart grid platform in a so-called “boosted model,” in which utilities can put the capital equipment on their balance sheets, as well as a managed service model where GE owns the hardware, he said. So far, utilities are about evenly split in their interest between the two business models, he said.

The Industrial Internet, Slowly

So how does this tie into the Internet of Things concept? Well, “Once the network is deployed, there are other things that municipal utilities can tie in there and benefit from,” Jackson noted. Some examples include the ability to connect streetlights or traffic cameras to the same network that supports smart meters, he said. That’s a concept that we’ve seen deployed by such smart grid players as Sensus and Santa Clara, Calif.-based startup Tropos Networks, which was bought by grid giant ABB earlier this year.

On the backend IT side, GE is also tackling challenges like connecting smart meter data to customer service platforms and other utility business software platforms, Jackson said. That’s led to integration that allows customer service reps to tie directly into an individual customer’s smart meter during an outage, to figure out whether or not it’s a utility problem or a blown fuse, for example -- the kind of incremental improvement that only comes when data is freely shared.

Whether or not utilities will catch on to the smart-grid-as-a-service model remains to be seen. Jackson said that GE has been talking to multiple utilities that haven't announced themselves yet. Amidst a general slowdown in North American smart meter deployments expected next year, smaller municipal and cooperative utilities stand out as a relatively untapped sector -- and one that will need some help in managing the IT behind an AMI or DA deployment at a cost commensurate with the smaller scale of their projects, in the tens or hundreds of thousands of meters, rather than millions.

Utilities do face some regulatory challenges and uncertainties in turning over key parts of their operations to a third party. At the same time, they're under pressure to meet a whole new array of requirements, including smart grid security and data privacy, that may well be better managed by a big central provider like GE than by each small utility. In the end, services will be the key to unlocking the small utility smart grid market, to be sure. But GE faces plenty of competition in establishing itself as the platform to trust -- and as with every shift in the way utilities do business, it's going to take years to develop.