Integration and interoperability is the name of the game in smart grid. The past week has seen a host of announcements making this clearer than ever.
First off, let’s take the partnership between smart metering communications vendor Aclara and smart grid enterprise integration partner Calico Energy. In January these two companies joined forces to build a demand response management system (DMRS) that can scale from individual homes all the way to regional grid operators.
Last week, the two partners announced their first utility project featuring their tech mashup with Fort Collins, Colorado’s municipal utility. The $46 million project will link the 65,000 electric smart meters and 34,000 water smart meters that Fort Collins is deploying to its customers through mid-2013 in an “integrated consumer engagement and demand response solution,” the companies said.
Aclara, owned by Esco Technologies (ESE), will provide the consumer engagement platform -- a task it’s done for some of the biggest utilities in the country, including recent new customer Sacramento Municipal Utility District -- as well as the demand response capabilities of the new system, which will run over the Elster smart meters Fort Collins is using.
Calico, for its part, will integrate Aclara’s software into its enterprise services bus (ESB) architecture for linking lots of different smart grid systems -- AMI, load control switches, grid sensors, etc. -- into a single enterprise platform. Utilities today tend to integrate different software platforms via vendor-supplied APIs, provided en masse by the tangled web of partnerships common to the smart grid industry (see Cisco, IBM and Silver Spring Networks for some examples).
An ESB, or a service-oriented architecture (SOA) approach, on the other hand, requires more forethought and design upfront, with the expectation that it will run more smoothly as an integrated whole at the end of the day. In terms of the game of “Telephone,” it might be described as the difference between having a roomful of people who all speak the same language and can hear each other clearly, versus a roomful of people who only speak one or two languages, and are depending on a handful of translators to get their message across.
Utilities have a lot of disparate systems to connect, which could make SOA approaches more popular in the future. Fort Collins is already working with eMeter, giving Calico and Aclara another platform to integrate to.
Speaking of eMeter, the meter data management company bought by Siemens last year has been announcing deeper integration with various smart grid partners, most recently with U.S. startup Silver Spring Networks and Chinese meter maker Wasion.
This week, it launched its latest integration news with smart meter vendor Echelon. EMeter will integrate ITS EnergyIP Platform with Echelon's Control Operating System (COS) software, which comes with a number of applications built in to use Echelon’s meters for various utility tasks like power quality sensing and theft detection.
While the two didn’t name any joint projects, both companies are working with Danish utility NRGi, and both have broader smart grid deployments in Europe that could see potential for future integration.
In the meantime, large-scale smart grid contracts are highlighting the level of integration going on in the industry. Take Wednesday’s news from smart meter vendor Itron (ITRI) that it had won a deal with Southern California Gas to deploy nearly 1.5 million gas meters and more than 600,000 gas regulators, starting later this year.
It’s the first meter award from SoCal Gas, which is owned by Sempra, the same company that owns San Diego Gas & Electric, another Itron customer. But these new Itron smart gas meters will be communicating with the utility not on Itron’s technology, but on Aclara’s, which won the contract last year to supply integrated hardware, software and network architecture solution to approximately six million residential and most commercial customers at SoCal Gas. They'll also be integrated to the utility's back-end IT and safety systems via a partnership with Capgemini, the French systems integration company.
Sean Hannan, analyst at Needham & Co., noted that SoCal Gas has yet more smart gas meters to buy to reach all its customers, and said he expected another meter vendor to announce a contract with the utility in the coming weeks or months. It’s an important reminder that big contract announcements don’t necessarily indicate exclusive arrangements between specific vendors and their utility customers.