Electronic Design
Smart Grid Powering: Who Will Be the Winner?

Smart Grid Powering: Who Will Be the Winner?

The race to capitalize on the Smart Grid is on, and the competition looks remarkably like what the telecommunications industry faced when the Internet was emerging nearly 15 years ago. Data communications was both an opportunity and a threat to the established telcos, just like the Smart Grid is to the utility companies today.

Utilities want to maintain their monopoly through their proprietary and more closed infrastructure, while private companies see opportunities for a more “open” system. Since there are multiple solutions in each camp, the question becomes: Which powering architecture will win?

The utility companies have the advantage of an already entrenched infrastructure, and they are using established means to implement their version of the Smart Grid. In January, the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) issued an initial list of standards, a second-draft cyber security strategy, and other elements of a framework to support transforming the nation’s aging electric power system into the interoperable Smart Grid.

NIST director Patrick Gallagher announced the publication of the NIST Framework and Roadmap for Smart Grid Interoperability Standards, Release 1.0. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 (EISA) set development of the Smart Grid as a national policy goal, and it assigned NIST the “primary responsibility to coordinate development of a framework that includes protocols and model standards for information management to achieve interoperability of Smart Grid devices and systems.”

For example, the Smart Grid depends on smart meters with sophisticated communication capabilities to monitor energy usage and allow residential and business consumers to make informed choices about how much energy to use. Individual utilities are purchasing and installing electronic power meters, but the numbers are still small compared to the old-style electromechanical utility power meters.

According to industry interviews, higher-end smart meters use off-line power supplies. Lower-end, basic watt-hour meters use capacitor/diodes. Perhaps 20% of meters currently use the more advanced off-line supplies, but smart meters could make up 28% of all electric meters by 2013.


Through the use of technology they already control, the utilities have the best opportunity to get the ball rolling. They are doing this through such projects as the Electric Power Research Institute’s IntelliGrid Initiative. The IntelliGrid is based on a methodology for gathering Smart Grid requirements; a standards assessment and contribution; an information model to facilitate systems integration; a communications technology assessment; and a security policy for Smart Grid applications.

These types of projects will be instrumental in determining the challenges of the Smart Grid, but they are still considered “closed” as far as players outside the utility industry are concerned. Such companies feel that a new, comprehensive power architecture needs to be developed in conjunction with the centralized power utility model. These systems would be “open” infrastructure models, and they could end up being important drivers to ensure the success of the Smart Grid.

Intel, for instance, has a provocative solution that would combine the utilities’ resources while slowly building an infrastructure that benefits power-supply makers. The company proposes an “open Smart Grid” with distributed control and low-cost energy storage. These smart, local microgrids, dubbed the “Enernet,” could enable entrepreneurial change agents to rapidly transform electricity service, quality, and value. Intel says that such a system would not work independently of the utility grid. Both types of systems are needed, but it would be a utility-driven open system that is based on user needs.

This proposed system was followed up recently at the Intel Developers Forum in Beijing. Intel chief technology officer Justin Rattner asked, “What if we could make energy management personal? Just like computing was taken from the hands of big business and put into the pockets and purses of consumers.” Intel unveiled a smart energy sensor that plugs into any wall outlet and uses a training mode to teach consumers about the electronic signatures of household appliances on a circuit.

Intel believes it can capitalize on its years of experience in building information systems, enabling it to create an “open eco-system.” Intel’s Microgrid Architecture is one such potential solution, and the company claims its strategy can “accelerate the Smart Grid by decades.” The model includes an intelligent control plane, a microgrid architecture, interconnection to plug-in hybrid vehicles, and nanotechnology-based ultracapacitors. Intel expects to build an industry around the intelligent control plane “within three years.”

Another development that would support a Smart Grid open system (but would compete with Intel’s) comes from the recent partnership between Microchip Technology and Google. Google is “helping to foster an ecosystem of devices and utilities that will provide consumers with access to their energy information.” Microchip’s partnership with Google PowerMeter is the first Reference Implementation of the Google PowerMeter application programming interface (API) for embedded developers.

The partnership is part of Google’s strategy to embrace third-party hardware developers for PowerMeter, and the company has announced other partnerships with small energy consumer device makers. It could represent a move toward using PowerMeter to monitor and manage smart appliances—washers, dryers, microwaves, and other devices embedded with communications technology that can connect with utilities and third parties.

Microcontrollers for smart appliances that will talk to the Smart Grid are a growing business for companies such as Microchip and NXP. According to Microchip, designers now have a quick and easy way to enter the global energy-conservation market by creating products for the measurement and monitoring of energy usage with Microchip’s Google PowerMeter Reference Implementation and its portfolio of 16- and 32-bit PIC microcontrollers, energy-measurement ICs, Ethernet controllers, and radios for ZigBee and embedded Wi-Fi wireless networking.

With these and other solutions competing for the powering of the Smart Grid, who is likely to win? What will probably happen in the short term is a hybrid approach, which means everybody wins. A hybrid system would employ multiple solutions, much like the “utility-driven open system” idea cited by Intel. Similar to the telecom model before it, the infrastructure up to the customer premises could be part of the utility domain, while the point of delivery would be in the hands of private equipment manufacturers.

This will be one of the topics addressed at the upcoming Darnell’s Power Forum (DPF), September 13-15, in Chicago. Tremendous synergy is possible from discussions broadly focused on power management, energy efficiency, advanced components, energy storage, Smart Grid innovations, and more.

DPF is a solutions-oriented event, with an emphasis on practical advances in power electronics. In addition to a strong focus on today’s “best practices,” DPF looks forward to next-generation solutions and advances, such as those that will power the Smart Grid. For more, go to http://dpf.darnell.com/.

TAGS: Intel
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