In February 2012, we profiled Verdeeco, an Atlanta-based startup working on a software-as-a-service smart grid data analytics platform for rural electric cooperatives, small municipal utilities and other cash-strapped, IT-expertise-challenged customers. Think of it as an a la carte, subscription-based version of the smart grid data analytics we’ve seen so much of lately out of grid giants like GE, Siemens, ABB/Ventyx, Oracle, IBM, SAP and the like, only aimed at a much lower price point.

This week, Verdeeco announced its first customer for its Grid as a Service platform, as well as its first “app” to turn disparate data into actionable information for utilities. The customer is Wake Electric Membership Cooperative, a 36,500-customer electric co-op in North Carolina, and the app is Verdeeco’s transformer monitoring solution, which has so far shown a return on investment of less than one month for some customers, CEO Brian Crow said in an interview this week.

That’s not an atypical return for turning on a system that can detect transformers that are about to fail or are at risk of failing in the midst of unusual grid conditions, as well as spotting underutilized transformers that could be used more effectively elsewhere.

But Verdeeco believes it can deliver those kinds of results at lower cost than its competitors, Crow said -- as well as building new “big data” apps for disparate utility business needs, such as spotting why certain customers have more momentary outages than others.

Verdeeco has another six as-yet-unnamed utility customers using the company’s SaaS services and paying for it, and plans to grow that to fifteen to twenty customers by year’s end, Crow said. Paying customers are important for a startup that has raised just $800,000 in disclosed funding from investors including the Atlanta Technology Angels, Auburn Angel Network and Upstate Carolina Angel Network.

Verdeeco is also talking with some smart grid equipment vendors, mainly as an outgrowth of its work with customers using the vendors’ gear, to look at ways to integrate them more closely with Verdeeco’s data analytics platform.

But the guts of Verdeeco’s offering resides in the startup’s data analytics architecture, which Crow described as a combination of Hadoop, Cassandra, NoSQL database architectures and other distributed computing technologies behind much of the world’s big data explosion. Verdeeco prefers to have interval metering data from its utility customers, of course, but it also pulls weather data, customer usage and occupancy data, and an exhaustive list of other sources of data to deliver its results.

That core ability to gather and manage the data, as well as to build algorithms to solve problems with it, can lead to all kinds of applications, he said. One customer, for example, has used Verdeeco’s system, cross-verified through another utility system, to count how many momentary power disruptions (or “blinks”) were happening on a feeder connected to a customer that had been complaining about them.

Accomplishments like these are important for proving the data engine’s ability to measure grid metrics like reliability, as well as to turn them into regulator-mandated figures like SAIDI and SAIFI, he said. Data like this can also help the utility and customer figure out how to solve their common problem based on a clearer understanding of what’s actually happening.

Verdeeco is working with partners like Georgia Tech’s Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC), the incubator where Verdeeco is headquartered, on adding more complex capabilities, like long-term transformer asset health and system planning modules, he said. It’s also talking to customers interested in apps to help analyze and guide customer engagement, energy efficiency and demand response programs, he said, akin to what startups like Opower, Tendril and AutoGrid are doing with the help of big data analytics.

As for what it costs, Crow wouldn’t disclose Verdeeco’s monthly subscription fees, but said that they’re based on the number of applications a customer consumes from the company, as well as some up-front integration costs for utilities that need it. Verdeeco also supports certain customer accounts with its own staff, though it isn’t seeking to grow into a deep professional services shop, he said – that’s the business of integrators like IBM, Accenture and Capgemini.

On the transformer monitoring front, Verdeeco and other startups trying to crack that space will face hefty competition. First of all, there’s an expanding infrastructure for transformer sensor and management systems that could supplant some of the advantages of a cloud-based approach. Secondly, Verdeeco is far from the only one trying to do transformer analytics in the cloud -- we’ve seen ABB/Ventyx, Oracle, SAP and General Electric launch transformer analytics offerings over the past year or so, all relying on some of the latest advances in big data analytics.

At the same time, Verdeeco’s chosen market of municipal and cooperative utilities is also being targeted by just about everyone in the industry, from long-time players in the space like Aclara and Tantalus to new entrants like Silver Spring Networks’ small utility offering, or the smart-grid-as-a-service platforms from the likes of General Electric and SAIC.

How standalone, subscription-based analytics will stand up to competition from players like these as they slowly grow into the small utility market is anyone’s guess. At the same time, the appetite of IT giants for data-analytics-for-smart-grid companies -- Oracle’s purchase of DataRaker, Siemens’ acquisition of eMeter and Toshiba’s absorption of Ecologic Analytics into its Landis+Gyr smart metering business -- indicates that even the giants are seeing valuable innovation out of startups in the space.  

There’s certainly an opportunity for the right technology and business approaches in the market. GTM Research has pegged U.S. rural cooperative smart grid spending at a cumulative $4.1 billion from 2013 to 2017, or about 10 percent of the country’s cumulative smart grid market over the next five years. As for municipal utilities, which range in size from massive (Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Austin Energy, etc.) to tiny, GTM Research projects cumulative smart grid spending of $4.5 billion to $9 billion from now until 2017.

Data analytics was a featured topic at The Networked Grid 2013: