Emerson, the power and building equipment giant, has been putting a lot of thought into how to make its business compatible with the smart grid. It’s not alone on that front, of course. Global competitors including Honeywell, Johnson Controls, Eaton, Siemens, Schneider Electric, Panasonic and LG have all been making moves to connect energy-aware building technologies to the people and systems that need the info, including stakeholders like building owners, managers and tenants -- and utilities.

Like Honeywell, Emerson has a lot of smart thermostats in the field under its White-Rodgers brand, taking utility commands to shave peak power use across whole neighborhoods, as well as working with partners like demand response provider Comverge. It’s also selling thermostats along with in-home displays for utilities that want to give customers a deeper view of their energy use, using data from smart meters.

In January, Emerson announced a new partnership with Georgia electric cooperative utility Habersham EMC to tackle a different challenge: turning energy-hungry devices like air conditioners and water heaters into real-time utility assets. To get there, Emerson and partners EnerSphere and Jetlun are tapping a $1.5 million federal grant (not from the Department of Energy’s $4 billion smart grid pool, but from the USDA) as part of a consortium delivering rural broadband, said David Drew, business development director at Emerson Climate Technologies.

From there, Emerson, along with Atlanta-based telco-turned-smart-grid connectivity provider EnerSphere and Hong Kong-based energy management company Jetlun, are piloting a “bundled intelligent energy management platform.” Without any need for smart meters, the system will connect thermostats and water heaters to a ZigBee (and someday, Wi-Fi) gateway that rides home broadband to the cloud, and connects back to homeowners’ smartphones and PCs to monitor and manage energy use, all in close to real time.

The Rural Broadband Smart Grid?

Think of it as a test of multiple propositions. First, it opens the potential for broadband to supplant advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) as a utility-to-home-communications pathway -- particularly for rural utilities that can make use of federal broadband funding.

Emerson is planning to launch both its smart thermostat-IHD combo and its smart water heater to the market in the next twelve months or so, and sees the Habersham project as a good testing ground for both, Drew said in a Monday interview. Right now it’s exploring multiple communications options, but it has also built in the ability to swap out communications cards to use ZigBee (its current choice for Habersham), Wi-Fi, cellular, private-spectrum or other new technologies that emerge, he said.

The Habersham deployment uses Jetlun's panel meter, appliance module, and intelligent energy management and analytics platform to connect all those devices to the cloud, he said. Installing a panel meter is expensive today, about $600 and up, EnerSphere CEO David Lasier told me -- but Emerson and Jetlun have simplified the installation and integration process to cut the cost and time to install, he said.

“The Emerson solution is pretty slick -- we believe it’s going to drive our labor costs significantly lower,” Lasier said. Smart meters cost about $250 per home (a very rough average, to be sure) in most U.S. deployments. Adding the home area network (HAN) functionality to them can cost $50 to $100 more, putting a cost-reduced, in-home panel meter-plus-gateway setup within competitive reach -- if the home has broadband.

But once the home does have broadband, it opens up a world of real-time control possibilities that AMI networks set up for fifteen-minute or hourly reads just can’t match. Right now, the Habersham project is actually collecting sub-second data for analysis, though it’s unrealistic to expect a commercial-scale effort to spend the computing power costs needed to actually use and store that level of granular detail, Lasier noted. But near-real-time responses from home appliances are in reach, he noted.

And while the DOE’s nearly $4 billion in smart grid stimulus grants have all been handed out, the federal government’s rural broadband initiatives have only begun. The Federal Communications Commission has been ordered to help the Departments of Commerce and Agriculture to award $7.2 billion in grants, loans, and loan guarantees to help roll out broadband to rural communities, as well as measure and manage the process for best results, over the coming years.

Addressing the Cooperative Utility Market

Secondly, the project represents an interesting integration challenge for Georgia’s 39 rural cooperative utilities, which collectively own a generation entity called Oglethorpe Power Corp. that supplies them with about 60 percent of their power. While Habersham will be deploying the Emerson/Jetlun combo to homes, Oglethorpe will be monitoring the project, to see how it can use household-specific energy controls to better balance its daily and real-time power demand and supply equations for all its co-op customers.

Together, HVAC and hot water take up the lion’s share of a home’s overall energy usage, making them natural targets for utility demand response programs run by grid operators and private parties alike. Smart thermostats from the likes of Honeywell and other giants are contending for control of the HVAC side of the equation, along with high-end startups like Nest and commodity providers like Radio Thermostat of America.

Water heaters are a less-often-tapped utility resource, since they’re more complicated to control than thermostats. Still, they’re an attractive target for utilities, as they can be heated when power’s cheap, then turned off to store that heat when the grid needs it. Multiplied across thousands of homes, that’s a significant source of energy storage.

Projects in the U.S., Europe, Canada and Japan are exploring ways to use water heaters to absorb excess wind power, for example, at speeds that could qualify them as a fast-acting grid resource, rather than an unreliable, customer-optional one. Of course, you’ve got to make sure extra-heated water doesn’t scald you in the shower -- but Emerson has done all of that in a way that doesn’t touch the UL ratings or warranties of the products in question.

Oglethorpe and Habersham could work their thermostats and water heaters to ease off on demand when they’re facing high power market prices, or use cheaper power earlier in the day to pre-cool buildings and preheat water, Lasier noted. Other companies with feet in both demand response and energy trading include Constellation Energy (now Exelon) with its VirtuWatt platform and demand response business it bought from CPower in 2010, and Schneider Electric via its OpenADR demand response platform and power procurement companies it’s acquired, including Summit Energy in the U.S. and M&C Energy Group in Europe.   

In the meantime, it’s important to remember that many cooperative utilities already have smart meters, albeit of a previous generation. EnerSphere is also working with lots of smaller utilities that have already deployed automated meter reading (AMR) or early advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) meters using powerline carrier technologies to send data directly over power lines. These PLC meters from companies like Aclara, with its recently updated TWACS technology, and the Hunt division of Toshiba’s Landis+Gyr are already in place for 70 percent of Georgia’s utilities, Lasier noted -- and for most of those utilities, they’re only halfway through their fifteen-year depreciation schedule.

Greentech Media has been covering the untapped smart grid opportunities and challenges for the U.S. rural cooperative utility market. GTM Research has pegged U.S. rural cooperative smart grid spending at a cumulative $4.1 billion from 2013 to 2017, or about 10 percent of the country’s cumulative smart grid market over the next five years.

At the same time, nobody expects big-city smart grid to work in the co-op space. As Lasier noted, the country’s 863 co-ops and their 17 million customer-shareholders only account for 12 percent of the total population, but cover 70 percent of the land mass and manage 40 percent of the country’s distribution grid infrastructure. That’s a pretty far-flung set of customers to serve, with a very different set of priorities than the big city utilities or the state-spanning investor-owned giants.