Let’s hear it for 6LowPAN for home energy management! Looks like Google is indeed turning to 6LowPAN to network its Android-capable smart LED light bulbs, according to Greentech Media. 6LowPAN is the new IPv6 mesh standard for linking lots of low-power devices, which fits the home energy market’s needs. I’ve written about moves by Cisco (via its acquistiion of wireless startup Arch Rock last year) to make 6LowPAN the dominant technology in home area networking. Cisco wants to create an end-to-end IP-based smart meter networking architecture for the smart grid, but hasn’t said how it might enter the home networking space. As for Google, its big [email protected] announcement came with a partnership with Lighting Science Group to make a networked LED over a mysterious wireless protocol — which, according to Greentech Media, will be 6LowPAN. NXP Semiconductor will supply the chips, which ties in to a broader push in the “smart lighting” industry to push their respective wireless solutions to the fore. Big energy services companies like Honeywell and Johnson Controls have their own proprietary systems, while startups like Daintree seek to make ZigBee the standard. Looks like Google’s new announcement puts 6LowPAN in the spotlight as well.
Last week’s launch of Silver Spring Networks’ long-awaited IPO is a big deal for the smart-grid industry. The company’s early public performance could be considered a gauge of the sector’s health as it emerges from a stimulus-backed growth spurt into an uncertain future. And in the longer run, Silver Spring’s success or failure will be closely tied to its plans to build a smart-grid application-delivery platform from its smart-meter networking base — a challenge many utilities face in integrating smart-meter deployments into their smart-grid offerings.
The company, whose networking technology is inside 8 million deployed connected devices and another 9 million under contract, has benefited from the $4 billion U.S. federal smart-grid stimulus. Its S-1 reports $422.2 million in deferred revenues, compared with 2010 revenues of $70.22 million, with much future revenue tied up in stimulus-funded projects. But that stimulus is coming to an end, and last week’s federal action plan on demand response (PDF) said the industry shouldn’t expect any more federal funds beyond existing stimuli. Likewise, the Obama administration’s smart-grid initiative, launched last month, contained little new funding beyond $250 million for rural grid projects.
For Silver Spring, that means new growth must come either from outside the U.S. — something that has begun to happen in Australia and that could happen in markets such as South America — or by adding new businesses to its existing smart-metering deployments. How to tackle that challenge is an important question, not just for Silver Spring but also for competing startups such as Trilliant, SmartSynch, Tantalus and Tropos Networks, not to mention giants like Itron and Landis+Gyr.
Home energy management could be one route. Silver Spring has home-energy and demand-response platforms, and pilots show that it works to drive down energy use. But home energy management remains a very uncertain market, as the withdrawal of Google and Microsoft from the field indicates. A June survey by Black & Veatch (PDF) found lack of customer engagement the biggest barrier to utilities’ justifying investments in customer-facing smart-grid deployments. Silver Spring might have to wait awhile for its utility partners to start spending on home energy management. Even then, utilities may choose another HEM provider to run over Silver Spring’s networks.
Silver Spring could also tackle the utility side of the smart grid. Corporate smart-grid M&A activity has been booming, and most of it has been aimed at utility-centric software and hardware systems. Silver Spring has distribution grid systems, and it is testing them with utility AEP in Ohio. But it will be competing against some huge multinationals like ABB, GE, Siemens and Alstom for that business.
In the long run, Silver Spring wants to build a host of applications — plug-in car management, demand-response controls and the like — on the foundation of its smart-grid networking platform. Whether utilities will choose Silver Spring’s in-house systems or pick other companies in those fields to run over Silver Spring’s networks may decide whether the company’s growth potential is limited to making smart-meter networking cards or whether it will expand to become a services provider for the grid — a move it will want to make to take part in the broader transformation of power grids to come.
In an interesting way, U.S. utilities at large face a similar challenge. They invested at least $2 billion last year into more than 12.8 million smart-meter deployments and are expected to invest a little bit more this year and next. This investment is with the promise of using the smart meters not just as digital cash registers but also as grid-management devices and gateways to new forms of customer interaction. Maybe Silver Spring can be the smart-grid champion to get the ball rolling. If utilities can’t deliver the full range of services and savings they’ve promised from their smart meters, however, regulators and customers might start to believe the entire smart grid is a waste of money, spelling disaster for everyone involved, Silver Spring included.
Question of the week
Can People Power get homeowners interested in managing their energy use? Today the startup, which has a cloud-based home energy platform, launched new products and partnerships, along with a pilot project in its hometown of Palo Alto, Calif., that could test the business viability of putting energy controls in homeowners’ hands.
Various parts of People Power’s attempts at making home energy management (HEM) easy, fun and cost-effective are also being tried by other startups to overcome the lack of engagement and functionality that has hurt less-involved platforms. But HEM technology needs more functionality and automation to succeed, as Google’s decision to kill its PowerMeter home energy platform last week indicates. Here’s how People Power is trying to fix that problem:
Mobile device capability. People Power has a pretty effective customer interface platform, with rich detail and guidelines to help homeowners check their progress against their own goals and neighbors’ performances. Tuesday’s launch adds new Android and iPhone applications that bring that interface to mobile devices, a good way to keep homeowners more connected to it. Many HEM vendors, including Tendril, AlertMe and Control4, plan to offer mobile connectivity, but People Power is among the first to make it available.
Power control, not just visibility. One of Google PowerMeter’s drawbacks was its lack of energy controls, a problem People Power wants to solve. First, it’s working with Radio Thermostat Co. of America’s Wi-Fi thermostats to manage heating and air-conditioning. That’s not unique: Home heating and cooling are a major part of peak power demand, a big concern for utilities, and many HEM vendors, such as Energate and EcoFactor, specialize in thermostats.
But air-conditioning only accounts for about one-sixth of average household power use, while plugged-in appliances make up nearly half. To tackle those, People Power has wireless power strips and plug-in hubs to turn appliances on and off via remote control or schedules. Of course, many HEM vendors, such as Belkin and GreenWave Reality, offer “smart” power strips or wall plugs. Getting people to use them is where People Power’s interface will be put to the test.
Power meter and home circuit monitoring. To avoid relying on smart meters for energy data, People Power will be working with Blue Line Innovations’ device to translate old-fashioned electromechanical meter data into digital signals, Energy Inc.’s The Energy Detective (TED) home power monitoring system and Obvius’ commercial building sub-metering systems. That’s not an automatic route to success: Google PowerMeter’s TED partnership didn’t save it. Likewise, Blue Line partnered with Microsoft’s Hohm residential energy management platform, but that didn’t stop Hohm from ditching home energy monitoring to focus on electric vehicle charging. At $200 and up, those devices are too expensive for most homeowners — a problem People Power will have to confront as well, and one that it hasn’t addressed in a way that differentiates it from the competition.
Broadband to replace smart meters? What People Power’s partnerships with Blue Line and TED do offer, however, is a way for Palo Alto’s municipal utility to collect residential customers’ energy data without smart meters. That could put People Power’s platform in a central role in managing a host of smart home utility capabilities, like communicating different power rates to customers or changing thermostat settings to shave peak power use.
There’s a catch to that plan, however: The communications network. Palo Alto’s city utility owns a fiber optic network to link People Power–enabled homes to the startup’s cloud-based service, but most utilities can’t afford fiber. That means that startups like EcoFactor, iControl and now People Power that are trying to ride broadband into home energy management may have to limit themselves to more affluent customers and communities. That’s a good place to find early adopters, but not necessarily a route to mass-market success. But then again, with industry observers in agreement that the HEM market will take years to develop, perhaps targeting early adopters is the way for startups to position themselves for the mass markets to come.
Question of the week
The proponents of G.hn should be excited. After all, the new triple-wire home networking standard is inching ever closer to market, what with ITU approval of the specification last year, the availability of the world’s first G.hn chipset this year and a fairly successful plugfest in Geneva this week.
But even after all that, the outlook for G.hn is still cloudy. Why? Because while the technology makes a lot of sense in theory —one chipset, three wires — so far only two service providers (BT and AT&T) have publicly committed to using it. And while G.hn may eventually make it to the retail sales channel, the wide adoption of Wi-Fi and HomePlug in home networks today makes for a pretty formidable one-two punch that will be hard to avoid.
So does G.hn stand a chance? While (naturally) some of the backers of MoCA (the standard for home-coax networking) and HomePlug (the standard for powerline home networking) would say no, there are still viable advantages that continue to make G.hn attractive:
- One technology and three wires should mean (eventually) lower costs. One MAC/PHY to work over three wires will mean only one gateway SKU, and this should mean lower costs to service providers both in hardware and training.
- The standard is an approved International Telecommunications Union (ITU) standard, which means it should be widely available and free of the IP licensing snags that crop up with proprietary technologies.
- It is next-generation standard — meaning it has a data throughput of up to 1 gbps — making it competitive with the next-generation MoCA (MoCA 2.0) and HomePlug (AV2) standards, which are both promising gigabit per second speeds.
With these advantages, why is G.hn still appearing to struggle? One reason is that the technology is late to market for many. In North America, MoCA has become the de facto multimedia networking technology for service providers, while HomePlug has gained significant traction at retail as an alternative to Wi-Fi and has seen some success overseas.
Perhaps most importantly, one of the biggest critiques of G.hn is that it’s not backwards-compatible with HomePlug or MoCA. It makes sense for a new standard to essentially work from a “clean slate” technologically, but for those service providers with millions of MoCA boxes in the field or for those with a HomePlug network, moving to G.hn would require a “forklift upgrade” of the home network.
Are things hopeless for G.hn? No, but the technology needs to find momentum quickly, both with additional service provider commitments and the shipping of hardware. Today silicon has already shipped from the likes of Sigma and Lantiq to hardware manufacturers, but there are no production units of G.hn in the field. For a standard that was completed a year ago, to just start holding plugfests and have no production hardware is a sign that things are not moving quickly.
Once hardware is available, it is likely that some service providers will field trial G.hn. Field trials take time, and all the while, MoCA and HomePlug keep marching on, with devices being deployed and next-generation technologies on the cusp of delivery.
Bottom line: If G.hn hopes to stand a chance, it needs to start showing results in the marketplace, and fast.
Question of the week
What will be the wireless standard that acts as the glue between devices — from connected light bulbs, to wireless thermostats to connected appliances — in the connected smart energy home? One dark horse that has made some headway in recent weeks is a low power wireless standard called 6LoWPAN, which uses a wireless mesh network architecture (wireless nodes that connect with their peers instead of a central device) and is also based on IPv6, an Internet numbering system that has an almost infinite amount of IP addresses and is commonly being used to wirelessly connect the “Internet of things.”
All this jargon means that as consumer electronics companies and Internet firms look to develop wireless products for the smart energy home, 6LoWPAN — and its more Internet-friendly characteristics — is gaining some headway. Here’s some examples: Last week, chip maker NXP Semiconductors unveiled its GreenChip package that can wirelessly connect lightbulbs and is based on 6LoWPAN. Cisco, meanwhile, showed it affinity for 6LoWPAN by buying up wireless network company Arch Rock last year, and Cisco plans to use the wireless technology for both smart meter neighborhood-area networks and low-power local wireless networks.
In fact I could also envision these companies’ moves into 6LoWPAN — from one of the world’s largest Internet infrastructure players and from a hefty chip company — as somehow becoming integrated together, which would give 6LoWPAN even more clout in the wireless smart energy home.
Cisco, NXP & The Smart Energy Home?
NXP’s initial partners for its GreenChip push are lighting maker TCP, and home energy management startup Greenwave Reality. The latter was founded by Greg Memo and Martin Manniche, who were formerly the general manager and CTO of Cisco’s Consumer Business Organization (formerly Linksys), respectively. I talked with them back in February about their approach to the home energy management market, and while they weren’t explicit, both hinted at the potential for a partnership with Cisco down the road.
Cisco has announced interest in home energy management via its partnership with home energy startup Control4. It also has far broader plans to network the smart grid from smart meters to utilities, but it hasn’t really stated its preferred method to link homes and grid networks together.
But last year, Cisco bought Arch Rock, a San Francisco-based startup with an IP-compliant smart meter networking standard called PhyNet that’s based on 6LoWPAN. The basic plan for Cisco’s neighborhood wireless smart grid was revealed then: to create an end-to-end IP-based smart meter networking architecture with radios that can replace the mish-mash of systems now used to connect smart meters in neighborhood area networks to the utility.
Big smart meter maker Itron, in turn, has a partnership with Cisco to work on end-to-end IP networking, and Cisco has said that Itron’s OpenWay system can be remotely upgraded to support a Cisco-Arch Rock system. So the question to me is, could a Cisco-Arch Rock-Itron smart meter network link up with an NXP-Greenwave Reality home lighting network, all using the same 6LowPAN technology?
Using 6LoWPAN to connect smart meters to utilities and homes to smart meters could be a very useful feature in the smart meter space. Almost every smart meter today that’s made to also connect to in-home devices uses two separate radios for those tasks. The higher-power meter-to-meter connections tend to be done via proprietary 900-megahertz radios from Silver Spring Networks, Itron and fellow meter makers Landis+Gyr and Elster. The lower-power, meter-to-home connections tend to rely on ZigBee, a utility-favored networking technology that leads in installs in most North American smart meters and is built to communicate with home area networks of the future.
6LoWPAN Over ZigBee?
But not everyone thinks ZigBee will be robust enough to work for meter-to-home networks across the wide range of home environments. ZigBee’s current technology isn’t IP-compliant, and while ZigBee is working with Wi-Fi and HomePlug on the IP-compliant, next-generation of the ZigBee standard, that process is going slowly. What’s more, many smart meters built to manage current ZigBee technology may be unable to serve the more robust memory requirements of the upcoming next-gen ZigBee standard. On the other hand, 6LoWPAN is already an IP-based network.
Last time I talked to Cisco about its Arch Rock plans, its networking technology was progressing along two separate tracks. The work to link smart meters in higher-power, neighborhood area networks was going on under the auspices of IEEE’s 802.15 Smart Utility Networks (SUN) Task Group 4G. A different standards effort called 802.15.4e was aimed at creating low-power networking that could keep meters networked during power outages — or, perhaps, link smart meters to home area networks.
Cisco hasn’t said much about its Arch Rock plans since it bought the startup in September, and many are wondering whether Cisco’s new corporate focus leaves much room for development on smart grid at all. Still, I’m curious to hear your thoughts — feel free to let me know if you think I’m on the right track.
Question of the week
Landis+Gyr is on the auction block, and General Electric, Toshiba, Honeywell and ABB are rumored to be in the bidding. Why the interest? Whoever buys Landis+Gyr will be getting the company’s extensive smart metering and distribution grid management technology to work with, and its extensive roster of moneymaking projects.
People Power has made a lot of changes from its start as a would-be home energy management device maker. Now it’s got a platform that could work in homes and offices — an example of how it and other startups may need to change to survive?
One device that can read an entire home’s electric load down to the lightbulb — all from one plug? Electronics giant Belkin and stealthy startup Power Map have two different takes on a technology that could disrupt the home energy management marketplace.
Thursday brings a reminder to home energy management startups that they’d better be ready to acknowledge the giants in the field. Honeywell said Thursday that it has shipped more than 350,000 of its UtilityPRO thermostats, which can turn down air conditioners via utility communications or homeowner pre-sets. Some 33 utilities are using them today, and Honeywell expects they’ll be delivering 500 megawatts of peak energy use reduction by next year. At least some of these thermostats come with technology from Cooper Power Systems and subsidiary Cannon Technologies — and Cooper’s Yukon demand response platform is in place at more than 200 utilities. Add in Comverge’s residential demand response portfolio, and you’ve got a good list of the market leaders in residential demand response today. Given the cheapness of the pager-and-thermostat approach, this could remain the dominant platform for smarter home energy technologies to link to for years to come.
In the race between ZigBee and Wi-Fi to network energy-smart homes, ZigBee has so far taken the lead, but that doesn’t mean Wi-Fi is giving up. Here is how the two technologies place in the race for the home energy management market.