The Next Big Thing

by Dave Michels

I write a lot about voice communications. But that’s a small sandbox – it spreads into networking in general, cellular solutions, and end points. But I need to expand a bit more with this post – because this topic is just too big.

Cisco, IBM, Google, Siemens, Microsoft, Oracle, are interested in this.

So is Barack Obama, Al Gore, and T. Boone Pickens. In fact, our modest stimulus bill earmarks $3.9B for it.

Guessed it yet?

Here is the best hint- no one agrees on exactly what it is.

The answer is Smart Grids. I know this may be shocking, but its the next big thing for telecom.

The only thing most agree on about Smart Grids is they are better than dumb grids and that’s what our electrical distribution system is now. Smart Grids can mean a variety of things to different people, but generally refers to improving the way we distribute, manage, and record power transmission. This includes meters. intelligent methods of “routing” electrical paths, and smarter fault detection.

Complicating matters further is electricity production is no longer centralized – thanks to the thousands(?) of regional residential solar and wind installations. Smart grids promise the ability to manage supply and demand much more efficiently – turning down air conditioners when clouds obscure solar production as well as minimize outages with intelligent rerouting of power around problems.

Smart meters make a lot of sense for both the consumer and the utility. They are politically safe (no one is in favor of dumb grids), though the solutions are not particularly clear. How will smart meters send their information and to who? Not only is there the obligatory confidentiality and freedom of information issues, but physical transmission issues. Will meters be connected to copper analog lines with modems? Broadband Internet connections? Wireless communications that repeat (like a commercial MAN version of Zigbee)? Or will they communicate directly over the power grid wires? These options are all being debated. Cisco claims the underlying communications network for smart grids will be 100-1000 times bigger than the Internet.

Google has made some interesting progress with Smart meters – their initial version was to work with selected utilities so their servers could access information directly and make usage information available to the consumer. But that kept the potential population of users pretty small. Google overcame this with a private meter option – no utility cooperation required.

Google this month announced a new partnership with TED:

Today, we’re very excited to announce we have secured our first official device partner. (That means having a smart meter installed by your utility is no longer a prerequisite for using Google PowerMeter!) …So we set out to make that data easier for everyone to access and understand by sending the collected data to our Google PowerMeter software…The TED 5000 from Energy Inc. is an energy monitor that measures electricity usage in real-time…As of today, we’re pleased to announce that anyone in North America can purchase and install the TED 5000 and see personal home energy data using our free software tool, Google PowerMeter, from anywhere you can access the web including through iGoogle for mobile phones.

The Google PowerMeter software allows consumers to understand their electrical usage; you can’t improve what you can’t measure (or at least can’t measure your improvement). Note, this is from, the philanthropic arm of Google.

The vast majority of household devices don’t indicate power consumption. Which uses more power in a week – the dishwasher or the fridge? Getting some clues at what makes the meter turn is a big step to reducing power consumption.

I love the idea of getting this information easily via Google gadgets. I believe it will help reduce consumption considerably which is good for the wallet and the environment.

Unfortunately, I am not so sure about smart grids as a whole. I get suspicious when all the parties, including utility companies and tree huggers agree on something. I also am suspicious of why a utility wants me to conserve when they only make money based on consumption. It is like the beer companies reminding college students to drink responsibly… I am just not sure its sincere.

But it is amazing to me how many of the companies I normally follow are getting into this area. New energy start-ups have networking terms like NOC in their names. Exactly how do you reroute power anyway; and will it be called a router?

Stay tuned for more posts. But exactly where do I post future posts on this topic? I post telecom stuff here on PinDropSoup – and home technology posts at Examiner. Worlds Collide! George is getting upset!