Distributed intelligence is all the rage in the smart grid industry these days. The idea is to turn smart meters, grid-hardened routers and other devices into computing platforms, capable of analyzing and processing floods of data at the speeds needed to manage disruptions that happen too fast for central systems to handle.
It’s a tricky endeavor, requiring a marriage of hardware, networking and software to manage multiple tasks. So far, two key contenders for utility platforms have been Silver Spring Networks, with its SilverLink Sensor Network technology, and Cisco, with its Linux-enabled IOx grid router. Both have a host of software vendors building apps to do everything from disaggregate household energy usage to manage grid voltage on circuits with lots of solar PV.
Underlying that premise, however, is the assumption that the underlying “platform” -- a bunch of hardened grid computers, linked by wireless networks -- is cleaning, filtering, analyzing, condensing and sharing all that data at the level required to make real-world decisions. These are the areas of expertise that Vancouver, B.C.-based startup Bit Stew has staked out, and on Tuesday it announced that it’s taking them to the edge, embedded in Cisco’s connected grid router (CGR) platform.
Cisco invested in Bit Stew last year, but it’s been working with the startup since 2011 to help utility BC Hydro deploy and manage its network of 1.8 million smart meters. So far, Bit Stew’s Grid Director software has performed its “adaptive stream computing, complex event processing, high-speed data analytics, and sophisticated machine-to-machine learning” tasks in the utility data center.
But with Tuesday’s opening of its Mix Core engine (Bit Stew’s name for the technology underlying its Grid Director platform), the startup can embed the entire application on a single CGR, or multiple devices in the network, said Bill Reny, the company's chief operating officer, in an interview. From there, it can put that collective memory and processing power to use as if they were servers back in a data center, he explained.
“Putting Grid Director at the edge, on the router level, you can do all those transactions and do all that analytics at the edge, and take the bare bones, the key data, to the head office,” he said. That helps serve a fundamental purpose of distributed intelligence to lessen the burden on the network as more and more devices get connected.
Beyond that, however, is a world of complexity in getting lots of in-field devices to communicate with one another in a way approximating the streamlined, closely managed data center environment -- or to adjust to overcome the inevitable differences. The wireless mesh networks used for smart meters throughout North America, for example, have limits on how fast they can move data from one “hop” to another on its way back to the utility, and a small number of reads are typically delayed or missing and must be accounted for.
Bit Stew’s approach has always included some level of distributed intelligence. At BC Hydro, it embeds software in Itron’s smart meters to help it tell whether a missed meter read is due to network failure, meter malfunction, planned outage, or another reason, for example.
But the embedded version available for Cisco’s CGR routers is aimed at a more seamless provision of distributed computing, said Alex Clark, Bit Stew’s chief technology officer. In other words, the same network and device management tasks the startup has been performing for utilities has laid the groundwork for a greater set of purposes.
“Any one of the devices is going to have less horsepower than an enterprise device, but the collective sum should be greater,” said Clark. “If I can break a complex problem down to a lot of simple problems, why not use the same intelligence to do more?”
Bit Stew’s 8.0 version of its technology includes new data streaming and data parallelization processor capabilities to help in this task.
Cisco and Bit Stew didn’t provide details on how they may have been testing this embedded capability to date, or which utilities were using it. BC Hydro is certainly a likely candidate, and Reny did say that the hometown utility has expressed interest in the technology. Another Cisco utility customer that might be a trial candidate is Duke Energy, the massive utility that has built the concept of distributed router devices into its multi-state, multi-million-unit smart meter rollout plans.
While the companies didn’t lay out just how they’re planning to put their new grid-embedded capabilities to use, Tuesday’s press release cited “complex communication networks that support substation automation, distribution automation and distributed energy resources,” among other utility uses.
“One of the potential use cases for this capability would be processing demand response signals,” said Reny. Bit Stew has been managing all the smart devices in BC Hydro’s Harmony House net-zero-energy home project. And with Mix Core embedded in the Cisco routers that communicate with those devices, it could provide a quick-reacting link for more fine-tuned management of home energy use.
Beyond the grid, both Cisco and Bit Stew are aiming at providing capabilities to the broader internet of things, or IOT -- a shorthand term for the world of wirelessly networked industrial, medical, business and consumer devices that’s predicted to emerge over the coming years. Bit Stew remains focused on the utility industry, Reny said, but it is looking at “adjacent verticals” for expansion, possibly starting next year.
Bit Stew CEO Kevin Collins, speaking as one of several Cisco IOT partners at a Tuesday event, noted that the electrical and gas industries are “on the leading edge of the industrial internet,” to use another term for the same concept. BC Hydro manages about 1.5 billion data points per day, coming in at volumes that amount to ten times Twitter’s record-breaking 580,166 tweets per minute during Germany’s victory over Brazil in the World Cup semifinal two weeks ago, he said.
“Not only do they have to process that, but they have to act on that in real time,” he said. “They have to get that nugget of actionable intelligence from that data to make decisions in the field.”
Bit Stew raised an undisclosed amount from Cisco and Yaletown Venture Partners last year, and secured a $3.5 million credit facility from Silicon Valley Bank in May. It claims 35 partners in the U.S., Canada and Australia, including BC Hydro, Michigan’s Consumers Energy, Australia’s SP AusNet, and two large, as-yet-unnamed California utilities with plans for smart meter and distribution grid optimization analytics to help them meet their solar PV challenges, Reny said.