Chalk up another acquisition in the smart grid space -- this one with an international flavor.
CURRENT, the former broadband-over-powerline (BPL) company that reformed itself as a smart grid communications and software innovator, has been acquired by Spanish medium-voltage grid gear vendor Ormazabal, the companies announced this week. Terms of the deal were not disclosed.
Germantown, Md.-based Current was launched as Current Group in 2000 to deliver data over utility power lines, but despite raising money from the likes of Google and Goldman Sachs, it and other BPL companies found little traction for their offerings. In 2008, Current sold its BPL business to concentrate on what it called the “most pressing need for utilities: data management.”
Current returned to investors, raising $13 million in 2011 to support its work on a number of fronts, from distribution automation (DA) hardware to grid optimization software. But the company also stayed true to its roots, developing a powerline carrier (PLC) technology that has grown into the company’s biggest success to date.
In March 2012, big Spanish utility Iberdrola announced plans to roll out 1 million electric smart meters across the country, featuring eight separate meter vendors, but all running on one standard. That’s the PRIME telecommunications protocol, Iberdrola's open standards powerline communications, which was developed by Current, though key vendors such as Itron, ZIV and Landis+Gyr are also members of the PRIME Alliance, the group formed to commercialize the standard.
Europe uses a lot more PLC technology than the U.S. does, for various reasons. One is that Europe’s grids connect a lot more homes per transformer, as many as 100 or so compared to five to ten in the U.S., which is important for PLC, because transformers tend to be bottlenecks for technologies that send data over the powerline itself.
Tom Willie, Current’s CEO, told me in a Thursday interview that 1.5 million PRIME-certified meters have been deployed to date, about 800,000 of them with Iberdrola, but with other large projects underway, such as a 300,000-meter deployment in Poland. Beyond that, the company’s low-voltage grid sensors and transformer communications devices are deployed in about 10,000 substations, and it’s the testing and certification partner for PRIME meters globally, he said.
France’s EDF, Spain’s Iberdrola and Italy’s Enel are all looking to PLC as the backbone communications technology for their massive, mandated smart meter rollouts. Enel actually rolled out 30 million meters over the last decade, linked with technology it developed with San Jose, Calif.-based Echelon, and EDF is working on a PLC technology known as G3-PLC, along with such industry players as Itron, Landis+Gyr, and a host of semiconductor companies.
Current’s role in Iberdrola’s chosen PLC standard could definitely give it a leg up in winning other portions of the utility’s smart grid plans, including broader communications and distribution automation functions. To take one example, Current beat out S&C to supply Iberdrola with transformer monitoring in a project announced last year.
In the United States, by contrast, Current has seen less traction. In 2011, it sold its grid optimization unit, which had built the sophisticated distribution grid controls for Xcel Energy’s SmartGridCity project, to Chicago-based S&C Electric Company, a significant player in grid automation, communications and energy storage integration technology. About 95 percent of Current’s revenues came from European projects as of last year, indicating that it hasn’t been focusing on U.S. business.
Still, Current has deployed about 20,000 low-voltage grid sensors for customers Xcel and Texas utility Oncor Energy, and is supplying distribution automation hardware to U.S. utility Pepco. While Ormazabal is also not yet a major player in North American smart grid markets, Willie said to stay tuned for new announcements that could change that.
Ormazabal, a subsidiary of Velatia, is a huge medium-voltage switchgear vendor, in the running with the likes of Siemens and Schneider Electric in its field. Current, for its part, brings its smart meter communications and low-voltage sensing gear to the picture, allowing the combined companies to offer solutions all the way up the distribution grid, he said.
While Ormazabal is centered in Spain and sells in France, Germany, Italy and the U.K., it also does business across Eastern Europe, South America, the Middle East and Asia, all emerging markets for smart grid technologies.