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Archive for the ‘IBM’ Category

In The New York Times on Friday, I write about why business software giant Oracle sees big business in promoting smart water meters:

With many states projecting that they’ll face water shortages in the coming years, smart water meters that provide real-time data on water use can help conserve dwindling supplies.

Traditionally, consumers receive monthly or quarterly water bills, long after the resource has disappeared down the drain. If a smart meter could give real-time information on water use through an in-home video display, the hope is that consumers will curb their consumption when they see, for example, just how many gallons that long shower squanders.

Water districts, on the other hand, can tap such information to detect leaks and other problems and quickly make repairs.

And yet, 64 percent of 300 water districts surveyed in Canada and the United States have no current plans to roll out a smart meter program, according to a study by Oracle, the business software giant.

And why is Oracle interested in smart water meters? The company already sells software systems and services to water districts as well as to electric and gas utilities and sees a large potential market in smart water meters.

(An Oracle rival, IBM, has also targeted water has a money-maker, and it has been developing sensor networks for water agencies.)

“There’s a belief today that water is becoming a critical issue for the nation,” said Guerry Waters, vice president for industry strategy at Oracle Utilities. “It’s a growing issue we’re going to have to deal with, not unlike the issues driving the electric industry.”

But Oracle’s own survey indicates the challenges of both rolling out smart water meters and making a business of them.

You can read the rest of the story here.

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While the U.S. Department of Energy on Tuesday issued nearly $8 billion in loans to Ford (F), Nissan and Tesla Motors to manufacture electric cars and batteries, IBM unveiled an initiative to develop a next-generation battery technology that would allow those vehicles to travel 400 miles or more on a charge.

Big Blue will investigate the potential of lithium air technology to replace current state-of-the-art lithium ion batteries. Lithium air potentially could pack 10 times the energy density of lithium ion storage devices by drawing oxygen into the batteries to use as a reactant. As a result lithium air batteries would weigh less than lithium ion batteries, C. Spike Narayan, manager of science and technology at IBM’s Almaden Research Center, told Green Wombat.

So besides powering cars, lithium air batteries could store electricity generated from solar power plants and wind farms, turning them into 24/7 energy sources.

But don’t expect to see the super-charged batteries anytime soon.”This is a five-to-10-year project,” says Narayan. “The first phase is to go after the big science problems. Then we’re ready to engage with automotive companies and battery manufacturers.”

The technological hurdles are high and even IBM (IBM), with its expertise in nanotechnology, green chemistry and supercomputing, won’t try to go it alone. It’s seeking partners at research universities and government laboratories to crack the tech challenges, which include developing a membrane that will strip water out of the air before it enters the battery and the development of nano materials to prevent layers of lithium oxide from interfering with chemical reactions.

IBM intends to limit its role in the battery business to R&D. “We have no desire to make batteries,” says Rich Lechner, IBM’s vice president for energy and the environment. “We will license the IP.”

In another sign that climate change and the imminent imposition of carbon caps are creating opportunities for Big Business and rearranging the competitive landscape, IBM also announced “Green Sigma,” an alliance of erstwhile competitors that will offer solutions to companies seeking to shrink their carbon footprint.

Green Sigma includes business software giant SAP (SAP), Cisco (CSCO), Johnson Controls (JCI) and Honeywell (HON). Dave Lebowe, an IBM executive with the Green Sigma program, acknowledged the potential for conflicts of interests among these frenemies but said such problems were outweighed by the upside of bringing together a broad range of expertise to help customers cut their CO2 emissions and save money.

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photo: Todd Woody

IBM on Tuesday said it has signed  a deal to help build a smart grid for utility EnergyAustralia. Some 12,000 sensors will be installed on the Australian utility’s transmission network around Sydney to monitor electricity distribution and detect outages and other problems. It’s IBM’s largest smart grid project of its type to date.

Big Blue will build the software systems to integrate the sensor data into the operations of EnergyAustralia, which runs the country’s biggest electricity distribution network. In dollar terms, the deal is small – just A$3.2 million (U.S. $2.2 million) – but significant in showing the viability of transforming analog electricity distribution systems into an intelligent network, according to Michael Valocchi, an executive with IBM’s (IBM) global energy and utilities unit.

“The electricity distribution operator will have a real-time view of the network and will be able to pinpoint outages quickly and reduce their length,” Valocchi told Green Wombat. “What I really like about this deal is that it starts to show and harden the message that smart grid is much more than automated metering. As you see more distributed energy and renewable energy out there, this type of sensor and this type of intelligence on the grid will help manage that.”

The sensors will be placed mainly at EnergyAustralia’s substations and around transformers, Valocchi says.

IBM had previously rolled out a smaller version of the smart grid system in Denmark. And in February the tech giant announced a deal to build a smart utility and water system for the Mediterranean island nation of Malta.  While overseas utilities have been quicker to smarten up their analog power grids, Valocchi says the United States should not be far beyond, especially as federal stimulus money for smart grids begins to flow.

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photo: IBM

IBM on Friday unveiled a series of  “smart water” services to deploy sensor networks and data-crunching software to help environmental officials better manage an increasingly scarce commodity.

“What we got back from people who monitor water systems is that they had a huge amount of data, that they were often entering the data by hand, and that they didn’t have time to analyze the data,” says Sharon Nunes, vice president for Big Green Innovations at IBM. “What we’re trying to to do is build more intelligence into their water systems.”

Here’s how it works in a nutshell: Sensors are scattered throughout a water district’s infrastructure – from reservoirs to the pipes that deliver H20 to homes – and gather information on water quality, leakage and other conditions. IBM (IBM) software analyzes that data and organizes it on a computer dashboard so water managers can at a glance detect problems and balance supply and demand.

A demonstration of the IBM technology and its reach is underway in Ireland’s Galway Bay. Working with Marine Institute Ireland, IBM’s SmartBay project has equipped several hundred buoys like the one in the photo above with sensors that are networked through wireless links. The sensors measure such things as water temperature, salinity and oxygen content. Nunes said some sensors measure wave height to determine the best locales for wave energy production while another experimental intelligent sensor detects phosphates and then essentially does a science experiment in a box to determine whether the data is of sufficient quality to beam back to the home base.

The project also uses fishermen as “nodes on the network,” allowing them to text-message reports of floating debris on the bay. SmartBay crunches that data and sends back a map showing the likely position of flotsam over the next 24 hours so boats can avoid collisions.

Nunes says all this data – presented on a computer dashboard – allows the Galway harbor master to get a quick snapshot of the the bay’s health and potential navigation hazards so decisions can be made quickly – like whether to close the beaches because of a spike in pollution.

She estimates the potential market for smart water technology to be between $15 billion and $20 billion. The $64,000 question, though, is whether IBM’s likely customers – cash-strapped municipalities and state and local governments – can afford to get smart.

The answer, Nunes says, is that federal stimulus package money is available for water projects while other countries like China have set aside cash – $53 billion in China’s case – for water quality projects.

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clintonbill1Another reason Green Wombat will be spending Earth Day in Southern California this year: Former President Bill Clinton will deliver the keynote speech at Fortune Magazine’s Brainstorm Green conference on April 22.

Clinton will be joining a gathering of business and environmental leaders, including Ford (F) executive chairman Bill Ford, PG&E (PCG) chief executive Peter Darbee, SunPower (SPWRA) CEO Tom Werner and executives from Fortune 500 companies like IBM (IBM),  Wal-Mart (WMT) and General Electric (GE). On the green side of the aisle, execs from the Natural Resources Defense Council, Environmental Defense Fund and Greenpeace will be attending the confab in Laguna Niguel.  Former California State Treasurer Phil Angelides, now chairman of the Apollo Alliance, and green jobs guru Van Jones will also be present.

We now end the shameless self-promotion and return to our regular Green Wombat programming.

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Google has become the utility of the digital age, something we click on as much as we flick on a light switch or turn on the water tap. Now the search giant is literally getting into the utility business with the development of smart grid software that gives consumers real-time information on their electricity consumption.

Called the PowerMeter, the prototype online dashboard is designed to download data from smart meters and display current electricity use and show how much power your refrigerator, big-screen television and other appliances are using at any point in time.

“We believe that by building a ‘smarter’ electricity grid, we can use the synergies of information and technology to give consumers better tools to track and reduce their energy use and, by doing so, save money and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” wrote engineering executive Bill Coughran and Dan Reicher, Google.org’s director of climate change and energy initiatives, in a filing Monday with the California Public Utilities Commission. “Down the road, consumers should have access to additional information such as the source and mix of their power.”

The Google (GOOG) executives urged California regulators to adopt policies to give consumers direct access to their real-time electricity usage in an open-source format. “The goal is to foster a thriving ecosystem of partners where third-parties develop and provide products to help consumers decrease and manage their energy demand and save money,” Coughran and Reicher wrote. “For example, a third-party could offer a service that analyzes a household’s electricity usage data, identifies inefficient appliances or practices in the home, and offers tips on how to reduce energy or provides special discounts on efficient appliances or electronic equipment.”

Utilities across the country are rolling out so-called smart meters that allow the real-time monitoring of electricity use, letting them charge variable rates depending on demand. The idea promoted by Google and other smart grid proponents is that once people become aware of how much electricity their various appliances and gadgets consume – and how much it costs them – they’ll start, say, running the dishwasher at night when electricity demand and rates are lower. That will help utilities cut their costs and over the long run avoid building new carbon-spewing power plants to meet peak demand.

Google’s move comes as the Obama administration pushes to upgrade the nation’s aging analog electricity grid, including $11 billion in the stimulus package for smart grid-related initiatives.

Google says PowerMeter, now being tested among Google employees, will be a free, open source application. “Google tool is only one of many ways to provide consumers with this information,” the company stated in its utilities commission filing. “Our primary goal is for consumers to get this information, whether through our tool or another source.”

It remains to be seen how the Google initiative affects the fortunes of startups like Tendril, Greenbox and others developing software and services for utilities to let their customers monitor their electricity consumption.

Google says it’s currently working with utilities and device makers. Green Wombat is waiting to hear back from Google on which ones, but a good bet would be General Electric (GE), which struck a partnership last year with the search giant to develop smart grid technology. Also likely on the list is PG&E (PCG), which has been collaborating with Google on plug-in hybrid electric car and vehicle-to-grid research.

Then there’s IBM (IBM), which has become the leading player integrating smart grid technology for utilities and managing the data produced by a digital power grid. (Big Blue last week announced it is building the world’s first nationwide smart grid for the Mediterranean island nation of Malta.)

So will Google PowerMeter save consumers money while saving the planet? That’s the early word from Google employees – not exactly the most neutral of sources – who’ve been testing the smart grid app, according to testimonials Google posted online.

“By monitoring my energy use, I figured out that the bulk of my electricity was caused by my two 20-year-old fridges, my incandescent lights and my pool pump, which was set to be on all the time,” wrote “Russ, hardware engineer.” “By replacing the refrigerators with new energy-efficient models, the lights with CFLs and setting the pool pump to only run at specified intervals, I’ve saved $3,000 in the past year and I am on track to save even more this year!”

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The ecobiz buzz these days is all about greening the grid, what with tens of billions of dollars in the stimulus bill for transforming the electricity system into a digitalized, interactive version of the Internet. Just on Wednesday, the European island nation of Malta announced a $91 million deal with IBM to not only create a smart power grid but to smarten up its water system as well.

Water, in fact, is likely to emerge in coming years as big an opportunity as electricity for tech companies. Just as climate change is driving efforts to add intelligence to the power grid to more efficiently manage electricity usage and new sources of renewable energy, a warming world is making water an even scarcer resource.

“How do you look at the ecosystem of water and make it a smart grid?” asks Drew Clark, director of strategy for IBM’s Venture Capital Group.  “It really makes a lot of sense if you think about it. It’s a scarce commodity, just like electrons —  it’s more scarce, in fact. It needs to be kept secure, it needs to be kept safe, it very often is abundant except when you need it a certain time and in a certain place.”

Clark’s job is to find companies – startups usually – with technology IBM (IBM) can tap for business units like its Global Energy & Utilities Industry. These days that means companies that develop sensor networks and other technologies that can be deployed across smart grids as part of IBM’s Smarter Planet initiative to essentially create a physical version of the Internet for the natural and man-made worlds – water systems, transportation, agriculture.

That, of course, would generate untold terabytes of data that would need to be crunched, mined and analyzed, spurring demand for the type of software and Big Iron computing that is IBM’s forté.

“We look at taking otherwise less-smart systems and essentially instrument them with these sensors and make them intelligent,” Clark told Green Wombat at IBM’s San Francisco offices. “Every one of these smart grids are based on some collection, in some cases millions, of smart sensors that are sensing some characteristic. IBM looks at it and says this is an information management problem. How do we take the information from all these devices and sensors and bring it together in a way to make sense out of it, business sense out of it.”

Take water. In California, for instance, a three-year drought has put water districts under pressure to cut their customers’ consumption while conserving every drop possible. Many districts still rely on dispatching workers in trucks to check on water quality and water levels and check for pipeline leaks and breaks.

IBM is designing systems to automate that process by placing small sensors in reservoirs and along pipelines right up to homes and businesses. “These sensors are wireless and form a mesh network,” Clark says. “This one talks to this one that bridges to this one that bridges to another and every so often there is an access point that is able to gather up all the information.”

Big Blue analyzes that data and displays it on a computer dashboard that allows water managers to monitor their systems and head off problems like leaks or contamination. For example, General Electric (GE), Clark says, makes a sensor the size of a half-dollar that can detect multiple environmental conditions.

IBM has pilot projects underway with some water districts but faces a business challenge: Those public agencies typically are underfunded and don’t have millions of dollars on hand to roll out smart water systems. Money is usually not so much of a problem for Big Agriculture and Clark says IBM’s early customers are corporate farming giants like Archer Daniels Midland (an ADM spokesman points out that the company is a crop processor, not a farmer) that want sensor networks to better manage everything from irrigation systems to soil conditions.

Clark expects that after energy, water will be next up on the legislative agenda. IBM, along with other tech giants, appears to have the ear of the Obama administration. IBM chief executive Sam Palmisano joined the CEOs of Google (GOOG), Applied Materials (AMAT) and other tech companies last week in a meeting with President Barack Obama about investment in green technology.

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