When it comes to creating the smart grid – an electricity transmission system that's able to track and manage energy distribution from utilities to end users – getting accurate data on energy use just raises the question of what to do with it.
For example, how can utilities use information from smart meters now being deployed, as well as future sources of data, to automate the way the grid reacts to a crisis? And how can utilities integrate distributed power generation from intermittent renewables like solar and wind power – not to mention plug-in electric vehicles and energy storage devices yet to come – in a way that doesn't threaten the grid's stability?
Computing giant IBM and French utility EDF on Friday said they've formed a research collaboration to find answers to those questions. Given the attention and money that utilities, startups and established technology companies like IBM and Google have been paying to the smart grid concept, there will likely be plenty of research to do.
The IBM-EDF collaboration isn't aimed at specific products or software as yet, said Ron Ambrosio, global research leader for IBM's Energy & Utilities business.
Instead, "This is really about building a very large system of systems that will be dealing with a lot of dynamic interactions," he said. "High-performance computing modeling and optimization software and simulation codes" – which is what the research collaboration is all about – "are going to be at the core of managing this dynamic energy production and supply chain system."
And what a system it is, or will be. The first stage – installing meters and systems that can measure and communicate information on energy usage at homes and businesses –includes an array of companies like Comverge (NSDQ: COMV), Echelon (NSDQ: ELON), EnerNOC (NASD: ENOC), GridPoint, Itron Inc. (NSDQ: ITRI), Silver Spring Networks, SmartSynch, Tendril and Trilliant, and that's just an alphabetical sampling.
But, Ambrosio said, "advanced meters are probably a first step in the smart grid, but they don't represent what a smart grid is." The next stage will come with using the data those meters collect to control things like appliances and heating and air conditioning systems to reduce the power they use at times of peak demand to save energy and avoid blackouts.
Part of making that a reality will involve collaboration among technology providers to make sure all their systems can work together, he said.
That's where the coalitions come in. IBM is a member of the GridWise Alliance, a group formed in 2003 that includes utilities and established companies like Microsoft and Lockheed Martin as well as new technology providers. Silver Spring Networks has formed a Technology Alliance Program that includes other companies in the smart metering and demand-response fields, as well as established technology companies Cisco and Oracle.
IBM has formed the Global Intelligent Utility Network Coalition to work with utilities on smart grid efforts, and is a member of the Demand Response and Smart Grid Coalition (formerly named the Demand Response and Advanced Metering Coalition), which was founded in 2001 and includes companies like Comverge, eMeter, EnerNOC, Itron, Silver Spring Networks and, most recently, Google Inc. (NASDAQ: GOOG).
Google has been pushing its name into the world of energy of late. In September it said it would work with General Electric Co. (NYSE: GE) to integrate electric vehicles, renewable energy and smart grid technologies into the U.S. transmission grid (see Google and GE Gang Up for Green Energy).
And last month Google CEO Eric Schmidt called for a $4.4 trillion national energy policy aimed at replacing coal-fired power plants with cleaner energy sources, mostly renewables – a move that would require lots of new "smart" transmissions.
Given Google's information technology focus, it's likely the company would see smart grid technologies as the best place to direct its energy ambitions, Ambrosio said.
"I do think Google is in a position to leverage their strengths," he said. "I think that there's also the possibility for collaboration with organizations like Google."