How exactly the power grid of tomorrow will look is still being decided. But several key developments over the past few months indicate that one industry may play an influential role in making the smart grid concept an eventual reality.
In the smart grid scenario, the utility company would be able to talk in real time to consumers and the things they use. The data that they’d collect would then allow utilities to respond more competently to demand.
The biggest obstacle that utility companies face is bridging the information gap. The current grid is only equipped for one-way communications, which limits efficiency upgrades. And, in order to enable two-way communications, an entirely new infrastructure is needed.
Rather than build an expensive new communications network for this highly-specialized purpose, utility providers are likely to outsource. Far-reaching networks are already available in the adjacent cellular communications industry, and we’re starting to see utilities, hardware providers, and telecoms converge around the smart metering concept.
In September, smart grid equipment manufacturer, SmartSynch, announced that it had struck a deal with AT&T to prepay up to 10 years of data charges for each device it installs. The cellular enabled devices are essentially hubs that will collect data from a neighborhood area network (NAN). Making up the NAN are individual meters. These so-called smart meters collect energy usage data from households and business, then relay it to a local hub via low power wireless signals (Zigbee has become the de facto wireless standard for this purpose). Where the cellular network comes in is in making sure that data reaches the utility company miles away.
This month, another major telecom provider also announced that they would offer a low-power wireless solution on the consumer side. Verizon said that they would initially make their Z-Wave enabled gateway available to roughly 5 million existing FIOS customers. Here, they’d be leveraging not only their customer base, but the broadband infrastructure that would allow customers remote access to their security, entertainment, appliances, and lighting.
Undoubtedly, there are still numerous hurdles to clear when it comes to enabling truly universal communication between the utilities and the home’s biggest energy hogs. The least of which is not who owns the data and the infrastructure used to carry it. However, the point is simply that utilities and their telecom partners are aggressively pursuing the smart grid opportunity, and that the other large telecoms are also poised to bring end users into the fold.
The next step logical step toward enabling end-to-end communication between power providers and power consumers would be to bridge this gap.