Trilliant, the Silicon Valley smart grid networking vendor that’s already working with British Gas on one of the United Kingdom’s biggest initial smart meter deployments, has just landed another big utility partner seeking to win market share in the same competitive market.

RWE npower, the U.K. subsidiary of giant European utility RWE, announced Wednesday that it has picked Trilliant to supply both the underlying networking software platform for its first round of smart meter rollouts, and the communications hubs that sit inside the homes being connected to the smart grid.

It’s all part of RWE npower’s “pre-DCC Foundation smart meter services,” a term of art that applies to the first, competitive stage of the U.K.’s mandated rollout. Between now and the end of 2015, it and competitors like British Gas, E.ON, Scottish & Southern Energy, EDF Energy and First Utility -- the “big six” energy retailers that control the majority of the country’s market -- are expected to deploy as many as 2 million smart meters, out of the eventual 50 million or so mandated for rollout by 2020.

Rob Conant, Trilliant’s chief marketing officer, said in an interview this week that RWE and Trilliant plan to follow a similar model to other U.K. deployments, using cellular to connect the utility to thousands of in-home communications hubs, which then use low-power ZigBee wireless to link to smart electric and gas meters, as well as the in-home displays that the government has insisted be installed as part of the process.

In 2010, Trilliant joined British Gas in a similar software-plus-communications hub partnership, and British Gas has since taken a lead in smart meter deployments to date, with more than 600,000 smart meters connected as of this spring. That makes Trilliant the largest provider of “in-home smart energy communications solutions” in the country, according to Wednesday’s release.

E.ON, the German energy giant, is in second place so far, with just more than 201,000 smart meters installed to date, according to the company’s Web site. E.ON is working with partners including smart metering giant Elster, and states that it’s “on track” to deploy about 1 million smart meters by 2015. The remaining four of the “big six” retailers are much further behind in smart meter deployments, from about 24,000 for First Utility to about 5,000 for RWE npower, according to figures submitted in recent testimony at Parliament.

As for total market share in the U.K.'s competitive gas and electric retail markets, here are some figures from RWE on how the big six currently split the country:








Electricity & Gas accounts







RWE npower hasn’t disclosed just how many customers it expects to sign up for its smart meter services in this first phase, nor which meter manufacturers and cellular home-to-utility backhaul partners it’s working with at present, though Conant said that it is working with eMeter, the meter data management software startup bought by Siemens in 2010.

Nor has RWE npower (or any other U.K. retailer for that matter) promised which partners will be playing a role in the second, “enduring” phase of the country’s smart meter rollout. That’s because this second phase will be very different from the first. For example, while British Gas is working with Vodafone as its key cellular connectivity partner for its foundation-phase deployment, it and every other energy retailer will be asked to eventually switch over to the regional communications partnerships that the U.K. government is setting up, Conant said.

Contenders for those regional networks include Telefonica, Airwave Solutions, a partnership between Vodafone and Silver Spring Networks, and the SmartReach group, a consortium including BAE, Arqiva and U.S. smart metering company Sensus. But just what these next-phase communications and data management architectures will end up looking like, and how they’ll integrate with all the meters and networks deployed during the first competitive phase, is still very much an open question.

In May, the U.K.’s Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC), which is in charge of the country's smart metering plans, decided to add a year to the schedule for both the competitive phase (from 2014 to 2015), and the mandated, enduring phase (2019 to 2020). David Groarke, GTM Research’s senior smart grid analyst, noted at the time that the delay was a troubling reminder of just how complex the U.K.’s smart meter plans are, compared to the rest of the world’s.

Take, for example, the fact that U.K. customers can switch retail energy providers from month to month, for both electricity and gas. That means that any hardware installed has to be able to support that switch between providers -- and, because they’re competitors, it has to do so without letting either party take a look at the other’s data at any point during the switchover.

All of this makes for an interesting, if uncertain, landscape for the first, competitive phase of deployments, Conant noted. RWE npower did cite Trilliant’s proven ability to scale with its British Gas deployments as a reason for choosing its technology for its own competitive push into the market.

At the same time, the U.K. is one of the only markets in the world that’s forcing utilities to get customers to agree, one at a time, whether or not they want a smart meter -- at least, for the next few years. That makes it a unique laboratory for different combinations of customer programs, service offerings, and technologies to contend for individual customers’ loyalties and attention. “You can expect to see some new and interesting programs come out of the U.K. that the rest of continental Europe will be watching,” Conant said.

As for the in-home energy devices that are part of the U.K.'s smart meter plans, Trilliant is working with several partners, including Onzo (now owned by Scottish & Southern Energy), Chameleon, Green Energy Options (GEO), Tendril, Aztech, and ecobee, Conant said. Indeed, because most of the U.K.'s electric and gas meters are located inside people's homes, they're considered another in-home device, to be linked via real-time ZigBee wireless to the comms hub that makes the critical cellular backhaul connection to the utility. That means real-time, two-way communication, which can offer some interesting options that the slower, mesh-networking-based smart meter deployments common in North America and other parts of the world can't necessarily match.