The smart grid is going to need microchips, lots of them -- and that means new markets for integration and specialization for chipmakers, whether they’re entrenched giants or startups.
Greenvity Communications, a Milpitas, Calif.-based startup with software development in Vietnam, is one of the latest to join the fray, with promises of system-on-chip (SOC) solutions to lower the cost of incorporating grid-ready communications in everything from industrial equipment to household appliances.
On Tuesday the company launched a new chip meant to combine two technologies for networking energy-aware devices: low-power wireless ZigBee and HomePlug GreenPHY, the energy-specific version of the HomePlug family of powerline carrier (PLC) communications. In other words, Greenvity’s new Hybrii GV7011 is combining wire-line and wireless comms on a single chip.
In fact, Greenvity is the first company to combine ZigBee and HomePlug GreenPHY in a single chip, Hung Nguyen, CEO of Greenvity, said in an interview. The only competitors he knows of with something similar are Qualcomm Atheros and Broadcom, which combine Wi-Fi with HomePlug AV, the more data-rich, broadband version of HomePlug that supports internet TV and home automation systems in millions of European homes.
The GreenPHY technology requires less bandwidth than HomePlug AV, which makes it cheaper to embed in less expensive devices like thermostats or even light bulbs. Qualcomm Atheros launched a chip for the GreenPHY technology in December 2011, but it doesn’t include wireless in those chips, Nguyen said.
But Greenvity, which raised $7 million in 2011 in a Series A round led by DFJ VinaCapital, and in January announced a partnership with Japanese semiconductor giant MegaChips, is banking that its system-on-a-chip approach will entice manufacturers that want to include both options, without turning to gateways or modular communications.
“We’ve been talking to smart meter companies, set-top box and home gateway makers, and appliance companies,” Nguyen said. “They want wireless or PLC, but they don’t know which one to use.”
It’s an interesting move to anticipate a market that hasn’t quite emerged yet. Sure, millions of smart meters deployed in the United States and elsewhere include plans to extend connectivity to homes and businesses via ZigBee. But very few of them have actually turned on their ZigBee radios to connect in-home devices to the meter and thence to the utility network, outside of some smaller projects in Texas.
And yes, HomePlug AV is a leading technology for using the wires that carry power to appliances, lights and other devices to talk to some 40 million devices around the world, particularly set-top boxes in Europe, as well as utility pilots from the likes of Energy Australia and German energy retailer Yello Strom. But the GreenPHY standard just emerged two years ago, and has yet to land any named customers using it for utility-scale deployments.
Still, Nguyen sees plenty of room for growth, particularly in Europe and Asia, where the combination of wired and wireless communications meet the needs of a key demographic -- apartment dwellers. While low-power wireless works well for single-family homes, it doesn’t work well in apartments or other multi-family housing where meters are in the basement, separated from the devices they’re meant to connect to by yards of concrete.
Indeed, South Korea is a hotbed for apartment-smart grid linkages, with players like GE, IBM and Cisco working alongside Korean giants such as Samsung and LG. Meanwhile, Japan is rushing to deploy energy efficiency technology to deal with its ongoing energy crisis in the wake of the Fukushima disaster and the country’s turn away from nuclear power -- a market where Greenvity’s partnership with MegaChips could open doors, Nguyen said.
Plug-in car charging is another field where Greenvity is aiming its sights, via its new GV7012 line of chips. HomePlug GreenPhy technology is being backed by a consortium of automakers including Audi, BMW, Daimler, Ford, General Motors, Porsche and Volkswagen as the preferred method of linking plug-in cars and charging systems that can do both standard and fast-charging via a single outlet.
That’s opened potential markets for Greenvity, as well as the likes of Qualcomm Atheros. Of course, the standard development process in the U.S. and Europe that’s named HomePlug as its preferred technology is in a bit of a conflict with CHAdeMO, a competing fast-charging technology backed by Japanese automakers like Nissan and Mitsubishi, however.