Itron has taken the next logical step in its push to embed computing power and analytics capabilities in the devices that make up the smart grid -- by moving beyond the grid itself and into the devices that use its power.
On Monday, Itron announced that it’s expanding its “edge intelligence” platform to include smart thermostats, pool pumps, water heater and air conditioner controllers, and a host of other load control devices. It’s the first set of devices to be linked through Itron’s Riva platform -- the IPv6-capable, Linux-programmable distributed technology platform it developed with partner Cisco Systems over the past few years and officially unveiled last week.
Right now, all of Itron’s available devices are built by partner Corporate Systems Engineering, but it’s working with other potential device partners, as well as with several utility clients interested in putting them to use, Stephen Johnson, Itron’s consumer energy management product line manager, said in a Monday interview.
Itron is also embedding its intelligence in agricultural pumps and remote terminal units (RTUs) that control grid or factory equipment. Itron’s display of connected devices at its annual Utility Week users conference this week in San Antonio, Texas, also included networked streetlights, although the company hasn’t officially announced a Riva-embedded streetlight control product yet, Johnson noted.
Technology to allow utilities to turn down air conditioners, water heaters and other devices isn’t new, of course. Demand response companies have been using one-way pager or radio networks for decades to control them. Today’s smart meter networks offer another way to reach them, with the additional benefit of two-way communications to ensure they’re getting the signal and reacting as ordered. And software can help utilities integrate different smart thermostats from different vendors into a single system, as startup AutoGrid has been doing with Texas utility Austin Energy.
What makes Itron’s load control devices different is that they’re using the same chipsets, the same internet protocols, and the same open-source programming that are being used today for its smart meters and Cisco’s grid routers, Johnson explained. This provides several advantages over legacy load control architectures, he said. For example, because Itron’s devices have their own IP addresses, they can be organized and managed much more simply and quickly than different devices using different technologies.
Because each device is part of the same Itron-Cisco network, they can be constantly monitored for connectivity, latency, responsiveness and other key quality of service measures, he added. Itron’s demo showed how a set of devices using Cisco’s IPv6 wireless mesh networking technology could be controlled alongside devices using cellular connectivity from Verizon, all from the same control screen, and all reporting back their status and power consumption in real time.
Finally, each device can be reprogrammed using Linux, the world’s most popular open-source operating system, he said. That should make writing “apps” for these devices much fast and simpler, compared to writing new application programing interfaces (APIs) to link up the proprietary technologies being used in most of today’s load control systems.
“We don’t know what the control hierarchy is going to be in five to ten years,” Johnson said. Building in the flexibility to adapt to new ways to use these devices should help prevent them from becoming stranded assets in the future. New standardized energy control interfaces for big household appliances like water heaters and air conditioners could also serve as a connection point for Itron’s technology, he added.
Itron’s move into distributed computing for grid devices is being matched by a few key competitors, including Silver Spring Networks, which launched its SilverLink Sensor Network early this year. Both companies have lined up many different software and hardware partners to work with them on using the capabilities inherent in their distributed architectures, though neither has named any utilities that may be testing or deploying yet.
Cisco’s IOx platform and “fog computing” architecture play an important role in enabling Itron’s distributed intelligence platform. The two have co-deployed with utilities including inaugural customer BC Hydro, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Hong Kong’s China Light & Power and National Grid.
Cisco has said for some time that its IPv6 wireless mesh technology could be used to network devices within homes, as well as on the grid. Right now, Itron is mainly working on cellular-networked load control devices, or using the low-power ZigBee home area network (HAN) radios inside its smart meters to communicate with load control devices in homes, Johnson noted. But it’s possible that some of its utility customers could try using its shared Cisco mesh to network and control devices in the future, he said.
Over the past year, Itron has also embedded its grid intelligence in electric vehicle chargers from ClipperCreek, and it is working with solar inverter maker Fronius on a similar “proof-of-concept” project. These are two examples of distributed energy assets that utilities would like to integrate into their grid operations.
Duke Energy, the massive U.S. utility that’s working with Cisco and Itron, has also been demonstrating how multiple grid devices can interact with each other without central control, using distributed computing architectures and open standards. Duke hasn’t said whether it’s planning to put the distributed computing capabilities of either partner to use. But given its long-running work on grid device integration, it seems a likely candidate for testing them out.