What You Should Know About Southern California Edison’s Smart Meter Patent

When we first heard that California utility Southern California Edison was applying for a patent on smart meters, we were a bit concerned. Patent wars in the mobile and broadband industries have played a big a part in delaying innovation. But the utility seems to have good intentions.

Southern California Edison filed the final patent application in early 2007 and had been working on the patent project for years before that, and it plans to offer licenses for free. The patent extends only to the business uses — not the technology — and only in the United States. This week, on Oct. 1, the utility plans to post its final proposed license agreement for the business use cases for smart meters on its web site, so you can check out its detailed plans for yourself.

So why did Southern California Edison file for a patent on the use of smart meters?

Southern California Edison’s VP of Edison SmartConnect, Paul De Martini, explained on a conference call last week that the patent is a “protection measure.” To avoid having a third party patent the general business case for smart meters and charge the industry to use the patent, SCE has decided to step in, in a defensive measure, patent the practice, and give away licenses for free. Basically, it wants to defend its planned $1.63 billion investment into smart meters, which was approved earlier this month.

It’s refreshing to see a utility take a step to try to actually ensure innovation in the industry. But we think the utility’s support of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and the Electric Power Research Institute’s (EPRI) attempts to develop a SmartGrid Open Source Repository, where smart grid business cases can be protected through a consortium, is far more useful.

De Martini said on the call that SCE would have rather worked with an open source repository to try to defend its use of smart meters, but at the time the repository wasn’t available. If the repository is ready in the future, SCE plans to work with it to protect other business use cases, like guidelines for the connection of plug-in electric vehicles to the power grid, De Martini said. He also said he is hopeful that an open source project will be available before the end of the year.

If that’s the case, we’re thinking the current smart meter patent could also be best handled by that consortium. Because the idea of a large entity owning and doling out licenses for such a crucial technology, no matter how altruistic, just makes the rest of the industry uncomfortable. On the conference call, it was obvious that industry members were concerned about having to apply for a smart meter license retroactively, and they raised questions about what would happen if they didn’t ask for a license — even if they ran a smart meter-reliant business. Having a consortium decide how those licenses get doled out would go a long way toward easing those qualms.