by Greentech Media

There are now more than 50 million smart meters in place around America and hundreds of millions installed worldwide. That's a major achievement. But the work to create truly intelligent and resilient electric grids has only just begun.

With the backbone of advanced metering infrastructure getting stronger every day, utilities, vendors and grid planners are asking what comes next. The grid is becoming increasingly digitized -- how can we take advantage of it?

The answer: better software, computing power, and analytics.

There are more than 1 billion data points being logged every day in the U.S. alone through smart electric meters. The true smart-grid revolution will be ushered in by the companies turning that data into actionable insights to improve reliability, make operations more efficient, help integrate renewable energy, and empower individual customers.

"We have millions of computing devices that are distributed over entire service territories. Like we saw in the broader IT market, the biggest factor now is finding the best value cases for the data. It's all about finding an end-to-end solution," said Jeff McCracken, the senior product manager for Itron Analytics.

Recognizing this industry-wide shift, Itron has expanded its product set to provide utilities with "outcome-based approaches" to analyzing the grid, rather than just providing hardware. 

The products can be sorted into two categories. The first includes a broad set of analytics offerings for electric, water and gas utilities that can be applied to any need. These include theft detection, operational improvements, demand-side management, distributed-generation integration, and customer engagement.

The second category is distributed computing. This includes Itron Riva™, a distributed intelligence platform that enables in-field computing in meters and sensors using Itron and Cisco’s jointly developed IPv6 network. Itron Riva is designed to help utilities make real-time decisions in the field -- cutting down on centralized IT infrastructure, while automating data collection and analytics.

"The reality is that the functionality of a meter will be commoditized. It's really critical that we're providing much more functionality and value to the utility than a simple monthly read," said McCracken.

These smart-grid offerings could be compared to those from two dominant tech leaders, Google and Apple. 

After wires, routers and servers were deployed en masse around the country, Google was one of the leaders in putting them to use. The company layered a growing number of services -- worth billions upon billions of dollars -- to help people navigate the new internet landscape.

Like Google's tools, the analytics solutions built by companies like Itron are designed to help utilities map and navigate their own grids in entirely new ways. As analytics capabilities expand and utility adoption increases, these products will enable new energy-delivery services worth billions of dollars -- some of which may still be unimagined today.

“The biggest factor now is finding the best value cases for the data. It's all about finding an end-to-end solution.” Jeff McCracken, Itron Analytics

Distributed computing is more akin to Apple's business model. One of Apple's biggest achievements was to enable the smartphone revolution. It didn't invent the smartphone. But it found a way to turn it into a desirable product capable of functions no one thought possible. This is where Itron Riva compares.

"Essentially, it's like moving from a cellphone to the smartphone," explained McCracken. "You now have a smartphone that's basically a computing platform -- it has memory, storage, a CPU, and network connectivity. The phone is just one application on the device."

Smart meters and sensors embedded with Itron Riva technology, he said, offer similar potential for enabling a broader set of applications. 

"The meter has metrology and sensing, but it's also a computing platform with memory, storage and network connectivity. If you apply that same analogy, the metering functionality just becomes one of the applications that you're running on the device," said McCracken. 

Admittedly, these comparisons to the tech industry only go so far. The internet was an entirely new thing. The electric grid and traditional utility business model have been in existence for a century -- so power companies are understandably slow in adopting cutting-edge technologies.

But progress is underway. Utilities are increasingly recognizing the need to do more with their data. From better billing to fault detection, renewable energy integration to outage management, electricity providers around the world are looking at new ways to improve their operations. 

"The information coming back from our new smart meters provides brand-new opportunities for understanding electric distribution system loading, transformer load management, preventive maintenance opportunities, or imbalances on the distribution system," said Mark Switala, manager of AMI operations at DTE Energy.

Analytics and computing capabilities are constantly getting better. At this point, the market depends largely on what utilities want to do -- rather than what the technology can do.

"The end-to-end solutions are available. It's just a matter of figuring out where to employ them, and for what reason," said McCracken.

Recommended reading:

Beyond the Smart Meter: From Better Billing to Building the Internet of Things

Building the Connected City of Tomorrow, Today