The "four horsemen" of the power grid are Schneider, GE, ABB and Siemens, all enormous and acquisitive firms that supply the equipment that utilities deploy to make the smart grid smart. Add smart meters vendors Itron, Elster, and Landis+Gyr and systems vendors such as Cisco, IBM and Silver Spring Networks and you have a small list of the larger vendors deploying billions of dollars of equipment for the next-generation grid.

But system vendors make systems -- they don't build the integrated circuits that drive and control all that equipment.

It's companies like TI, Analog Devices, Freescale, NXP, Cirrus Logic, Accent, Linear Technology and Maxim that build the mixed signal and analog circuits providing the "smarts" in smart meters or the battery management building blocks for electric vehicles and energy storage.

These firms see the smart grid as an immense growth opportunity for semiconductors and have trained their resources on the sector, looking to grow their businesses organically or by acquisition.

Greentech Media spoke with Maxim to get the company's take on the future of the smart grid. Founded in 1983, Maxim is a mixed signal and analog chip maker with 9,200 employees, $2.5 billion in 2011 revenue, and 6,700 products. The firm has hundreds of people working in the smart grid vertical, its fastest growing industrial sector.

David Andeen, Maxim's End Segment Manager, said, "The way energy is generated, flows, and is bought and sold is going through a revolution." Andeen segmented the smart grid into the following sectors:

  • Metrology -- Andeen remarked that most metering vendors differentiate themselves not by their hardware but by the services provided and regulatory issues confronted. Maxim provides a smart meter reference design that allows companies to better design smart meters and might allow smaller companies to get into the metering business.
  • Security  -- With a background in the financial transaction space (Maxim's products are in half of the world's financial terminals and ATM machines), Maxim has experience in providing layered, "holistic solutions" for meter security. This includes "endpoint hardening" by obscuring and hiding data as it is stored or deleting data and shutting the meter down if the meter is tampered with.
  • Communication -- The smart grid uses a diverse set of communication protocols to send information -- from cellular to ZigBee to Wi-Fi to HomePlug and more. Maxim is a proponent of the Powerline G3 PLC standard.

Maxim views the strongest leg of the sectors as smart metering but sees enormous growth opportunities in distribution automation (DA), building automation, battery management systems (BMS) for autos and utility-scale energy storage.

The IC building blocks of the smart grid include real-time clocks (RTCs), analog-to-digital converters (ADCs), voltage monitors and references and much more.

Maxim acquired Teridian for $315 million in 2010, a firm that makes chips to measure voltage, current, and power factor that are found in dozens of manufacturers' smart meters, including big names like General Electric, Landis+Gyr and Elster. Teridian also incorporates time-of-use, anti-tampering and display functions, as well as software, into complete systems.

The trend, as in most high-volume IT hardware industries, is for integration of chips into systems or systems on a chip (SoCs). 

While Moore's law doesn't really apply to solar, it certainly has the potential to accelerate the progress in smart grid, lower the costs of new equipment and enable new services.