Echelon Takes the Smart Grid to the Edge

Echelon (s ELON), the long-time building controls company that also makes smart meter networks, on Wednesday launched a new software-hardware combo to control the distribution portion of the grid. The product has two notable aspects: it’s open to third-party application developers, and its first customer will be utility Duke Energy (s DUK), which has pledged some $14.5 million for an initial order.

Dubbed Echelon’s “Edge Control Nodes” and the Echelon Control System ECoS software platform, consider it the company’s play for the distribution automation business — the often-overlooked, but critical task of adding communications, sensors and controls to the grids that distribute power to homes and businesses. San Jose, Calif.-based Echelon will face a host of competitors — and potential partners — in the field, from giants such as Siemens (s SI), General Electric (s GE) and ABB to distribution grid-focused startups such as Current Group and PowerSense. Then, of course, there’s also Cisco (s CSCO), which has launched its first line of hardened grid routers and wants to network every part of the smart grid.

Echelon’s approach is to place edge control nodes at the low-voltage transformers that typically serve as the final step-down point between the local grid and end users, and link them up with its software control platform. Transmission lines and big distribution substations have controls and communications, but the grid’s edges are pretty much dark. That’s why utility workers have to rely on phone calls and truck crews to find the cause of power outages.

New sensors and controls could also help cut the 5 percent or so of power lost to distribution grid inefficiencies every year — and, of course, they’ll be critical to help manage increasing numbers of rooftop solar panels, plug-in electric or hybrid vehicles, and other new technologies being installed on the grid’s edges.

Echelon is making an unusual move by opening up its ECoS platform to third-party application developers — but then, given that Echelon wants to provide a platform capable of adaptation for a wide variety of uses, that makes sense. Jeff Lund, Echelon’s vice president of business development, compared the ECN to a “one-size-fits-all grid device to match the smart phone,” and the Linux-based ECoS platform as the framework for running a host of applications over that platform. A key goal, he said, is to embed “distributed intelligence” in the system, so that far-flung sensors and controls can react at the speed of the grid to anticipate and avoid problems. After all, he noted, “The fastest network connection is the one you never have to send data across.”

Echelon’s smart meters now communicate using powerline networking, which sends information over the same lines that conduct electricity — a fact that allows Echelon to pick up information on voltage and frequency that wireless-based solutions might have to add extra sensors to get at, he noted. Still, Echelon intends to support a host of wireless connections for ECoS and its ECNs, including industry-standard 900-megahertz systems.

It’s not surprising that Duke would be the first customer for Echelon’s new ECoS platform. Last year, Duke became the first U.S. utility to use Echelon’s smart meters and networking platform, with an initial $15.8 million order that could grow to up to $150 million. But at the same time, Duke has a long list of smart grid partners that includes two makers of multi-modal grid communications platforms (Ambient and SmartSynch), as well as Cisco (though the two haven’t said much about what they’re doing together).

Most of the 2 million or so smart meters Echelon has deployed are in Europe (that 2 million figure also doesn’t include the 27 million smart meters Italian utility Enel now operates using Echelon-based technology). Echelon’s smart meter platform, known as Networked Energy Services, will be interoperable with its new ECoS and ECN products, Lund said. One interesting European partner for Echelon is Telvent, a communications provider majority held by green power giant Abengoa, which could give it inroads into bigger green energy and smart grid projects.

Other companies that praised Echelon’s new offering in a Wednesday press event included Oracle, eMeter, iControl, S&C Electric, Vattenfall and Verizon — though that doesn’t mean that those companies are partners yet. Echelon expects to be shipping field trial ECN late this year, and predicts production-level shipments will begin in mid-2011. The company hasn’t released any pricing information on the platform, Lund said.

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