Deploying smart grid to the nation's homes just got a lot easier, according to SmartSynch.
SmartSynch, which has been popularizing smart meters since the beginning of the decade, has signed an alliance with AT&T under which AT&T's wireless network will serve as a communication platform between an individual meter at a home and the utility.
By exploiting an existing robust network, SmartSynch will effectively reduce the cost and fear factor among utilities when it comes to deploying smart meters. The deal also effectively gives momentum to the movement to base smart metering networks on open standards rather than proprietary protocols.
"I think everyone would admit that utilities are way behind in terms of their investment in this market," said SmartSynch CEO Stephen Johnston in an interview last month. "The fastest way to deploy smart grid tech is to use wireless networks."
"We're the only company in the space that's really bet the ranch on public wireless networks," he added.
AT&T and SmartSynch actually already work together on smart grid deployments for commercial buildings. This deal, though, greatly expands the relationships. There are an estimated 100 million residences in the U.S. and only a small number have smart meters. While some utilities such as California's PG&E have already begun deploying smart meters, some remain in the analysis stage.
SmartSynch works with around 100 utilities, mostly on linking communications for meters at industrial and commercial customers. Smart meter penetration is much higher at those large power users, since they often pay tiered prices for power – giving utilities reason to monitor how much power they're using.
Gerd Goette, Siemens Ventures, which invested in SmartSynch, said that everything from generation to end users of power "needs to be able to communicate with each other. I think we've developed a great standard for that over the last 30 or 40 years or so, and that's IP."
Although some smart grid companies like Trilliant and Silver Spring are building their own networks or selling network equipment, Johnston says that those networks need about ten years to pay themselves off. Cellular carriers, meanwhile, will continue to cut costs.
"When these carriers decide they want to be in this business, you know they'll do anything they need to win in this space," he said.
Cellular networks could be a more common choice for utilities to carry inforamtion from smart meters or collection poaints back to their control rooms, acording to Dave Mohler, chief technology officer for Duke Energy.
"We looked at how communications technologies are developing," Mohler said, adding that, "If you look into the money going into cellular globally. ... You've got hundreds of billions of dollars going into cellular." Duke is looking at using cellular for much of its "backhaul" of data from its smart meter deployments, he said.
Not everyone, of course, is sold. A machine-to-machine network requires different capabilities.
"The carriers themselves are basically not specialized in machine-to-machine area, and they haven't really packaged utility solutions that are the most cost-effective," said Edward Drew, director of utility solutions of Kore Telematics, in an interview earlier this month. Kore uses the wireless cellular networks but overlays its own IP network.
Smart metering and smart grid technologies are expected to rapidly grow over the next few years because of the opportunity to cut costs and save energy. General Electric's Steve Fludder recently estimated that smart grid technologies could help recover 41 gigawatts in the U.S. (see GE Says Smart Grid Equal to 41GW of Power Plants).
Initially, smart meters only help utilities cut the cost of sending workers out to check the meter. The meter essentially lets the utility know how much power you are consuming remotely. But when home networks arrive, customers and utilities will collaborate to allow smart meters to turn down air conditioners, dryers, freezers and other appliances to curb consumption.
Correction: We mistakenly referred to Edward Drew as CEO of Kore.