It looks like 2014 is the year for distributed intelligence to colonize the smart grid. Just check out our coverage so far this year of a wide array of emerging models for bringing open, flexible computing to grid edge devices, from Silver Spring Networks and Cisco’s new distributed computing platforms, to Duke Energy’s “Coalition of the Willing” and Toronto Hydro’s distributed microgrid pilot projects.

Now it’s Itron’s turn, via its Embedded Sensing platform (PDF). That’s how the U.S. smart meter giant describes the distributed, multi-device and communications technology framework it’s developing for the grid edge. The goal is to provide what Itron calls “collaborative energy exchange networks” -- a way for smart meters, solar inverters, electric vehicle chargers, home energy management platforms and smart streetlights to share information and functions in ways they can’t right now.

Itron has started with EV charging partner ClipperCreek, which is now selling charging stations embedded with Itron revenue-grade metering hardware. Those EV chargers can talk to Itron’s cellular and wireless mesh communications, as well as use Wi-Fi and ZigBee wireless to connect to customers’ handheld devices and home energy management systems.

Next on its agenda is smart solar inverters, Stephen Johnson, Itron senior product line manager, told me in an interview last week. Itron already provides cellular meters to third-party solar aggregators such as Sunrun and Clean Power Finance to track solar PV output and revenues, as one of several PV monitoring players.

But adding embedded sensing and multi-communications options to advanced inverters will become critical as states like California start to demand more monitoring and control of their fast-growing share of distributed, customer-owned solar PV, Johnson said. At January’s DistribuTECH conference, Itron was showing off a proof-of-concept solar inverter from Fronius that integrates Itron’s smarts to give customers more data on how their rooftop solar is affecting their own energy usage and costs, as well as giving the utility a way to track and even manage the inverter for grid needs.

Underlying these concepts is Itron’s “low-cost, powerful processor” that runs on a Linux operating system, allowing developers familiar with the world’s preeminent open-source OS to write all manner of applications for these edge devices, he said. That’s similar to how Cisco, a big partner of Itron, has opened up its grid routers and switches to Linux applications via its IOx networking software. Itron’s Embedded Sensing “fits hand in glove with that solution,” Johnson noted, with the partners already working on ways to enhance the functionality of their shared networks.

Itron uses Mono, an open-source implementation of Microsoft’s .NET Framework, to write code for its embedded sensors, as well as to “leverage code we’ve written in .NET for other applications like Itron Enterprise Edition or Itron Analytics,” Johnson said. That should allow for more rapid integration of distributed grid-edge node capabilities with back-office analytics and business processes -- something that today’s grid network architectures, which tend to carry edge data back to central platforms in separate, siloed channels, struggle to accomplish.

“We also tie into that a USB hub that can create any number of modular radio interfaces,” to allow swapping of different communications in the field. There are lots of ways multi-communications capabilities are important, he noted. Itron customer San Diego Gas & Electric, for instance, has more than 900,000 ZigBee-enabled gas modules that are communicating daily through the Itron OpenWay wireless mesh network that makes up its 2.2-million-unit smart electric meter network. Imagine adding ZigBee-enabled EV chargers, solar inverters or home energy management systems to that stream, he said.

“At the same time, we envision other applications like street lighting, load control switches for measurement and verification, home energy managers -- things that aren’t a revenue-grade meter,” he said. In some cases, the edge device Itron could be integrating may “not a physical device at all, but an algorithm that can learn,” or a software-defined, virtualized sensor existing on another piece of computing hardware. (This is the same kind of vision being laid out by Silver Spring Networks with its SilverLink Sensor Network, by the way.)

Just what utilities, third-party solar or energy management providers, and individual customers could make of this multi-device network is an open question. “We’re trying to take a measured approach to this,” Johnson said. “What is the right platform? What does the end state look like? How do we push automated coordination of distributed energy with demand response -- push it down into the grid and make it happen?”

That’s a big question when it comes to enabling two-way communication and control of smart inverters, he noted. Smart inverters could help utilities manage a number of grid stability problems that come with rising amount of distributed PV. But those technical solutions can come with some drawbacks for the customers and third-party financing companies that own and manage them as assets. 

“We’re seeing that conversation evolve,” Johnson said. “Obviously for Itron, serving our core utilities is our core business. If they say this is a concern -- particularly if they’re utilities like SDG&E and Southern California Edison that have deployed our OpenWay system -- we have to take that seriously.” At the same time, “we’re having the conversation with inverter manufacturers and with the financing companies” like Clean Power Finance and Sunrun in order “to figure out what’s the right transition plan.”