There's something a little sci-fi like about the idea of a "smart grid" – an electricity transmission system that can monitor and control the flow of power between utilities and their customers to avoid blackouts, smoothly incorporate distributed power generation and even use plug-in electric vehicles as grid storage batteries.
But for those competing to make it in the business, it's a Wild West story, with shootouts over competing communication standards – WiFi versus ZigBee, RF Mesh versus WiMax –looming, and the promise of concept-proving and lucrative utility contracts as the loot.
From giants like General Electric and IBM to up-and-coming startups, there's a lot of room in an industry that's still in its infancy. But as utilities continue to install smart meters and demand response systems, and plan for a much-anticipated Home Area Network that will connect appliances, thermostats and other power-suckers to utility control rooms, there's also a lot to prove.
Energy-Management Buying Spree Continues (Jan. 24)
The year in smart grid technologies began with some early consolidation, as BPL Global announced it was buying Portland, Ore.-based Serveron, a company that monitors online and services transformers energy-management company, and Connected Energy, which makes energy-management software. The consolidations had been building from the year before, when Comverge bought energy-efficiency firm Public Energy Solutions for $13.4 million and Enerwise Global Technologies for $75.7 million, and EnerNOC acquired MDEnergy for $7.9 million.
SCE Preps $1.63B Smart-Meter Program (Sept. 19)
American utilities plan to install more than 40 million smart meters between 2007 and 2010, according to a 2007 Federal Energy Regulatory Commission report. In September, Southern California Edison became the latest utility to announce grand plans to install smart meters to serve its 4.8 million electric customers. Smart meter maker Itron was the lucky winner in that contract, as well as in a deal with San Diego Gas & Electric. But other smart meter providers, such as General Electric, Landis+Gyr, Elster and Sensus, are also getting involved. Pacific Gas & Electric is buying GE and Landis+Gyr meters for a $2.3 billion deployment. American Electric Power Co. is working with GE as well.
Silver Spring Grabs $75M (Oct. 7)
Smart meters aren't smart unless they can talk to utilities, and companies like Silver Spring Networks gives them a voice. The Redwood City, Calif.-based startup raised $75 million in October, on top of $70 million raised since 2007 from investors including Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Foundation Capital, JVB Properties and Northgate Capita. Its circuit boards are enabling communication from smart meters to the networks of utilities including Pacific Gas & Electric, the Modesto Irrigation District, Canada's Westario Power Services and others.
Others in the field include Trilliant, which raised $40 million in capital in August, has installed about 750,000 meters and participated in the large Hydro One deployment in Canada, and SmartSynch, which is working with utilities including Burbank (Calif.) Water and Power utility and Colorado's Xcel Energy.
An Old Favorite – WiFi – Preps to Disrupt Smart Meter Market (Aug. 22)
The Home Area Network – a future world of monitors that tell homeowners how much power they're using and appliances, thermostats and other devices that can be monitored and even controlled by utilities through home smart meters and communications networks –has so far been mostly a ZigBee world. Utilities including Southern California Edison and Centerpoint are adopting the low-power communication standard, which has been good for companies like Boulder, Colo.-based Tendril Networks, which had deals with 27 utilities to test or deploy its Zigbee-enabled home energy monitoring systems.
But other companies want to use tried-and-true WiFi instead, since it's already in widespread use. One of them is GainSpan, an Intel spinout that says it can match Zigbee's lower power requirements with WiFi's improved range. Only time will tell which - or both - will be in the smart homes of the future.
The Next Smart Grid Technology: WiMax (Sept. 18)
There are a variety of ways to link smart meters to the utilities that need to communicate with them. Pacific Gas & Electric and others working with startup Silver Spring Networks are using RF Mesh technology, which allows meters to serve as relays for each other to get information to collection points that deliver it to the utility's communication networks. Other methods, like broadband over powerline, have also been used, particularly in Europe.
But Grid Net, a startup with links to Intel and General Electric, wants utilities to turn to the long range, high-bandwidth wireless data protocol WiMax instead. Grid Net says the growing WiMax network being put in place by Sprint and Clearwire, with billions in investments from the likes of Google, Comcast, and Time Warner Cable, would be a ready-made communications system for a future smart grid.
GridPoint Gets $120M, Buys V2Green (Sept. 23)
Arlington, Va.-based GridPoint, founded in 2003, has moved from making products that monitor energy use for residential and commercial clients to making software to help utilities manage the flow and storage of power. In September, it announced a $120 million investment, bringing its total funding to more than $200 million.
It also announced it was buying Seattle-based V2Green, a company working on ways to use plug-in electric vehicles for grid power storage. That's a growing area of interest for utilities – while there are a handful of electric vehicles on the road today, any future electric fleet will have to be integrated into the grid to avoid overdrawing its power.
Acquisitions in Smart Grid: Get Used to It (Nov. 24)
When SmartSynch bought up Applied Mesh Technologies in November for an undisclosed sum, it continued a buying spree in smart grid companies that analysts expect to continue. Building out a smart grid will take utility-scale cash, and those utilities are famously averse to risk in their endeavors, making it likely that they'll look to large, established companies to provide them with equipment and services that will form a future smart grid.
Tendril Expands Its Reach in Smart Homes (Nov. 24)
Tendril Networks has taken a strong position in the home energy consumption monitoring business. The Boulder, Colo.-based startup, which makes Zigbee-based hardware and software, raised $40 million in 2008 and had signed deals with 29 utilities to test and/or deploy its technology as of November. CEO Adrian Tuck said one of those utilities would start a commercial rollout next year.
But Tendril will face competition from companies like GainSpan, which wants to use low-powered WiFi rather than Zigbee to connect home energy monitoring systems, and Greenbox Technology, which builds Web-based software to monitor home energy use.
Smart Grid Coalition Seeks Tax Breaks for Negawatts (Nov. 24)
Government subsidies have played a critical role in getting biofuels andsolarand wind power off the ground in the United States. In November, the Demand Response Smart Grid Coalition (DRSC), a trade group for smart grid technology developers, asked Congress for equal treatment – except they want to get paid for not using power. That is, the group asked for a tax credit linked to "negawatts," or the power they're able to save utilities and customers through use of their products and services.
EnerNoc Expanding Into Carbon Management, Energy Services (Dec. 5)
EnerNoc is in the demand-response business – that is, it runs a network that can curtail power going to lights, machinery and other industrial power loads to help utilities deal with times of peak demand and avoid brownouts. But the company is also offering some of its customers consulting on energy procurement and energy efficiency, as well as "base load commissioning" services that help clients save power by using equipment more efficiently.
Late in 2008, it decided to get into a new game – carbon tracking and trading services. Cutting carbon emissions by reducing power demand, after all, will likely be cheaper than doing so by building solar and wind power plants or developing so-called "clean coal" technologies that don't exist yet.