We've been talking for years about the potential for cloud computing to democratize the smart grid IT infrastructure. The idea is to take software that’s been built at levels of scale and sophistication meant for the biggest, best-funded utilities and make it available as subscription-based software-as-a-service offerings.

That could open up new vistas for the mass of smaller utilities without the budgets and IT staff to handle their own deployments -- or create new customers out of utilities around the world that want to dip their toes into what the cloud has to offer before diving in.

This week, eMeter launched its full assault on this cloud-based business model. On Wednesday, the advanced metering market leader and a Siemens subsidiary announced the availability of its EnergyIP meter data management suite as a hosted service, available from Siemens or a set of as yet unnamed IT partners, on a per-month, per-meter basis.

Then, on Thursday, eMeter added its grid analytics capabilities to that cloud service. That means offering remote data collection and analysis, and turning it into utility applications for advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) health diagnosis, equipment load management, outage and event analysis, revenue protection and load monitoring, plus more offerings to come from its growing portfolio of big-data insight tools.

This combination of cloud-hosted MDM, not just for smart meters but also for AMR and old-school electromechanical meters, as well as a set of analytics meant to derive grid-wide insights from masses of meter data, puts eMeter in the running for one of the most ambitious smart grid cloud offerings out there.

Add Siemens’ smart grid technology expertise and market share, and you get "a deep understanding of the type of analytics that bring business value to these organizations,” Lisa Caswell, eMeter CEO, said in a phone interview this week. “That’s the source of strength we’re going to be able to come out with.”

Factors like speed to market and low cost of deployment are going to be critical to capturing more business in a utility landscape where the biggest MDM deployments have been claimed, and untapped customers aren’t interested in big upfront costs and long integration times, she said.

“You can basically lease, if you will, the application, such that you get the value of the solutions on some fairly aggressive timelines that are set forth in the marketplace,” she said. “Get every piece of data into the system as fast as possible, so you can make the most thorough business decisions as possible. That’s daunting when it’s all behind the firewall. But it’s less daunting when you can go to the cloud.”

Stacking Up the Cloud Offerings in an Untested Market

Caswell declined to cite specific price points that eMeter is targeting for its new cloud offerings, nor did she name any customers using the new hosted service. But there’s no doubt that eMeter is only one of a number of challengers to create the nascent market for moving core utility functions like meter data management into the cloud.

One big competitor certainly taking notice is Oracle, which holds a significant share of the global MDM market. Oracle has made a big push into cloud-hosted meter analytics with its acquisition of DataRaker, which now collects and analyzes data from about 22 million meters for such tasks as theft detection, outage restoration, and mobile workforce management, as well as some early deployments of grid-centric analysis like volt/VAR management and predictive load modeling.

But DataRaker's cloud smarts are centered specifically on analytics, not on the core meter-to-cash data management processes that have been eMeter’s focus since its 1999 founding. And while Oracle and DataRaker are now solely working in North America (albeit with plans to expand internationally), eMeter’s cloud offering is being aimed right off the bat at international markets, where the company is already engaged in MDM deployments in Taiwan, Norway, Belgium, the U.K., Turkey and Brazil, Caswell said.

General Electric is another major grid vendor with a data analytics suite, Grid IQ Insight, that has a focus on smart meter analytics. GE also has a smart-grid-as-a-solution business that it’s aiming at small to mid-size utilities, where it’s contending with a host of competitors such as Leidos, the commercial business spun out of government-contracting giant SAIC last month, and small utility MDM specialists such as Harris Utilities’ SmartWorks division and its MeterSense MDM offering. 

More smart grid data analytics contenders could be poised to expand their offerings to cloud-based services. Silver Spring Networks has its UtilityIQ suite of analytics, as do smart meter vendors such as Itron, which has a significant market share for its MDM software beyond supporting its own smart meters. Toshiba, which owns metering giant Landis+Gyr and MDM provider Ecologic Analytics, is working on similar analytics capabilities.

One of the big challenges facing vendors trying to convince utilities that it’s safe to move MDM to the cloud is proving that the system will stand up to the task. On that front, eMeter points to its implementation with Ontario’s Independent System Operator (ISO), which is “probably the biggest cloud implementation on the planet today,” Aaron DeYonker, Vice President of Products for eMeter, said.

“To me, that’s a really high watermark in terms of functionality and skill,” he said. “It’s hourly intervals being processed across the province, and being fed back to the local distribution companies in time-of-use buckets, for the various customer bases across the province.”

Beyond the operational and regulatory reporting involved, “As they really stabilize this basic meter-to-cash functionality, they’re moving into what’s called the innovation phase,” he said. “That’s more around the business side of the analytics.”

Merging meter data into grid-wide analytics demands the integration of a whole set of grid IT assets, from the core geographic information systems (GIS) that serve as the foundation of most utility grid data management, to the outage management systems (OMS), distribution management systems (DMS), demand response management systems (DRMS) and other acronyms that delineate how utilities have organized their IT functions to date.

Advanced analytics brings a whole new set of data to the picture, “adding in weather data, and demographic data, adding new dimensions to the grid stability pieces of it, to the customer operations pieces of it,” DeYonker said. Part of eMeter’s portfolio includes customer engagement, which could tie into future applications for demand response and time-of-use pricing like it’s supporting in Ontario.

As for turning meter data into integrated into core grid operations like transformer health monitoring, “We have customers that have real challenges managing tens, to hundreds of thousands of service transformers in their territory,” he said, adding, “We have teams in Siemens that have written the IEEE standards on transformer performance.”

A plan is in place to bring more specific analytics capabilities to the cloud, Caswell added, though just when and how that will happen has not been set in stone. For example, last week, eMeter launched two new analytics applications, its equipment load management (ELM) app for transformer monitoring, and its Grid Data Vault (GDV) data archiving solution. ELM is already available via eMeter’s cloud, but the grid data vault capabilities aren’t part of that mix yet.

The Long, Winding Roads to Smart Grid in the Cloud

It will be interesting to see how eMeter’s existing integration partners play roles in its new cloud offering. Accenture and Siemens, which have been working together on smart meter implementations since last year, just launched a new joint venture called Omnetric, which “brings great depth when it comes to business transformation capabilities that are available, as well as integration with a number of back-end systems,” Caswell said.

And IBM, which last month announced it’s working with giant European utility E.ON on a cloud-based smart metering IT infrastructure to serve Germany, Austria and Switzerland, is a big eMeter partner in Ontario, as well as with Texas utility CenterPoint.

Amidst all the excitement around cloud-based smart grid functionality, however, it’s important to note that these things don't always move as quickly as planned. Take the announcement, back in February 2011, that eMeter and Verizon were working together to host eMeter’s MDM on Verizon’s cloud.

That was one of the first big cloud computing announcements in the smart grid world -- and since then, it has been followed by two and a half years of silence. While Verizon told Greentech Media last month that it’s getting ready to announce a smart grid project combining smart meters and MDM, and Caswell said that Verizon has “a number of relationships in place utilizing the cloud-based offering,” none have been publicly announced.

“We’ve evaluated how things have gone with Verizon, and we want to expand on the capabilities, and what the market needs are,” she said. “It’s really our own pricing model here that’s the big enabler,” along with prepackaged offerings that have been put together with an eye toward delivering the key combinations for which eMeter’s current customers have been asking.

“We really want to share that around the globe,” she added. “We might possibly need more cloud providers than we might have needed in the past” in order to serve specific markets. The next three months should see some announcements regarding new cloud services partners, as well as first projects with utility customers, Caswell said.

There’s no doubt that the utility industry is closer than it was in 2011 to getting ready to try adopting cloud-hosted smart grid platforms for some of its more mission-critical needs -- and turning meter data into bills is certainly one of those. It’s also clear that today’s growth markets for smart metering and grid analytics lie in sectors that need cost-effective cloud solutions to move more deeply into big data analytics.

Has eMeter or its competitors found the right combination of pricing and reliability to open that market? Watch for new customer announcements and new capabilities being added to the cloud to keep an eye on how that question is being answered.