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Archive for the ‘smart grid’ Category

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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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tendril-iphone-appHere’s an iPhone app that really could help save the planet while saving stressed consumers’ money: Boulder, Colo.-based startup Tendril this week unveiled a mobile software program that lets people monitor and control their home’s energy use while on the go.

Say you’re sitting in the unemployment office listening to some bureaucrat drone on, so you pull out your iPhone to update your Facebook status and then check on whether that next unemployment check will cover the utility bill. When Tendril tells you that your electricity consumption is spiking and so will your estimated monthly bill, you remember you left the air conditioner set on Arctic. Flick your finger and shut that energy hog down.

That scenario won’t become common for awhile it as relies on a widespread rollout of smart utility meters that will bring the interactive smart grid and real-time electricity pricing into the home. That is happening, albeit very slowly (though the pace is expected to accelerate with billions in the stimulus package being poured into smart grid-related projects. The ability to remote-control your appliance, however, is some years away).

For instance, Tendril, is rolling out a home energy management system for Texas utility Reliant Energy (RRI) that allows customers to monitor and control their electricity use through a video display that sits in the living room. When Green Wombat visited Reliant’s smart house project in Houston last September, the utility’s tech guys showed me their own home-brewed iPhone app.

As anyone with an iPhone knows, Apple’s (AAPL) app store makes it ridiculously easy to turn the gadget into Dr. Who’s sonic screwdriver – a gizmo that does everything but put out the trash and feed your pet bunny. But earth2tech’s Katie Fehrenbacher questions how widespread Tendril’s app would be used given the difficulty in putting any third-party software program on a BlackBerry or other smartphone. But that’s changing by dint of Apple’s growing share of the smartphone market and the advent of the app-friendly Google (GOOG) phone.

Green Wombat is most intrigued by the potential of such apps as the Tendril Mobile Vantage to tap into people’s inherent competitiveness, keeping-up-with-Jones mentality and, in the Facebook era, compulsion to share, share, share. The data generated by smart meters and home energy management systems like Tendril’s will let consumers compare their energy use – and thus contribution to global warming – with their neighbors and friends.

In fact, Tendril is planning to add a carbon footprint feature to its mobile app. Funnel that data into a Facebook newsfeed and let the peer-to-peer pressure go to work to see who can claim Twittering rights to a low-impact lifestyle.

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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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Over the weekend The New York Times’ Matthew L. Wald had a sobering story on the not-inconsiderable challenges facing efforts to expand and upgrade the United States’ power grid to tap renewable energy from wind farms and solar power plants. Among them: Opposition to new high-voltage power lines from landowners and environmentalists, a Byzantine permitting process and fights over who pays the costs of transmission projects that span state lines.

Here in California, the ongoing controversy over the Sunrise Powerlink project is a case study in just how difficult it will be to build the infrastructure to transmit electricity from dozens of solar power plants planned for the Mojave Desert. Among the big companies looking to cash in on the solar land rush: Goldman Sachs (GS), Chevron (CVX) and FPL (FPL)

Utility San Diego Gas & Electric first proposed the $1.3 billion, 150-mile Sunrise Powerlink in 2005 to connect the coastal metropolis with remote solar power stations and wind farms in eastern San Diego County and the Imperial Valley. For instance, SDG&E’s contract to buy up to 900 megawatts of solar electricity from massive solar farms to be built by Stirling Energy Systems is dependent on the construction of the Sunrise Powerlink. Like California’s other big investor-owned utilities – PG&E (PCG) and Southern California Edison (EIX) – SDG&E, a unit of energy giant Sempra (SRE), is racing the clock to meet a state mandate to obtain 20% of its electricity from renewable sources by 2010 and 33% by 2020.

But Sunrise sparked opposition from the get-go as the utility proposed routing part of the transmission project through a pristine wilderness area of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.  The prospect of 150-foot-tall transmission towers marching through critical habitat for desert tortoises and other protected wildlife galvanized environmentalists well-versed in the arcane arts of regulatory warfare.

Opponents also painted the project as a Trojan horse to bring in cheap coal-fired power from Mexico. (Wald makes a similar point in his Times‘ piece – the same high-voltage lines designed to transmit green electricity from wind farms can also be used to send cheap carbon-intensive coal-fired electricity across the country.) That argument subsequently lost currency when regulators, citing California’s landmark global warming law, barred utilities from signing long-term contracts for out-of-state coal power.

After more than three years of hearings and procedural skirmishes culminating in an 11,000-page environmental impact report, a PUC administrative law judge last October issued a 265-page decision all but killing the project on environmental grounds. Whether SDG&E thought that green energy and climate change concerns would trump worries over wildlife and wilderness, it was clear that trying to build an industrial project through a state park was a costly mistake.

Then in December, after California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed an executive order to streamline and prioritize the licensing of renewable energy projects, the utilities commission’s board revived Sunrise Powerlink, approving a different route for the transmission lines that avoids Anza-Borrego.

But the fight is far from over. With the cost of the project now approaching $2 billion, late last month the Center for Biological Diversity, a Tucson, Ariz.-based environmental group, filed a suit in the California Supreme Court challenging the utilties commission’s approval of Sunrise Powerlink.

Safe to say, the battle will drag on for some time to come, giving new meaning to the term “stranded assets” for some would-be Big Solar developers.

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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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Photo: Visit Malta

The Mediterranean island nation of Malta on Wednesday unveiled a deal with IBM to build a “smart utility” system that will digitize the country’s electricity grid and water system.

Granted, Malta is a microstate with a population of 403,500 (smaller than Sacramento; bigger than Iceland). But the world — and utility infrastructure giants like General Electric (GE) — will be watching closely. Not only is Malta the first country to green its national grid but it will also serve as a test case for whether integrating so-called smart technologies into both electricity and water systems can help mitigate the increasing deleterious effects of global warming on the island.

As with other island states, power and water are intricately linked on Malta. All of the archipelago’s electricity is generated from imported fuel oil while the country depends on energy-intensive desalinization plants for half its water supply. Meanwhile, rising sea levels threaten its underground freshwater supplies.

“About 55% of the cost of water on Malta is related to electricity – it’s a pretty staggering amount,” Guido Bartels, general manager of IBM’s Global Energy & Utilities Industry division, told Green Wombat from Malta on Tuesday.

So how can digitizing the grid help? IBM (IBM) and its partners will replace Malta’s 250,000 utility meters with interactive versions that will allow Malta’s electric utility, Enemalta, to monitor electricity use in real-time and set variable rates that reward customers that cut their power consumption.  As part of the $91 million (€70 million) project, a sensor network will be deployed on the grid  –  along transmission lines, substations and other infrastructure – to provide information that will let the utility more efficiently manage electricity distribution and detect potential problems. IBM will provide the software that will aggregate and analyze all that data so Enemalta can identify opportunities to reduce costs – and emissions from Malta’s carbon-intensive power plants. (For an excellent primer on smart grids, see Earth2Tech editor Katie Fehrenbacher’s recent story.)

A sensor network will also be installed on the water system for Malta’s Water Services Corporation. “They’ll indicate where there is water leakage and provide better information about the water network,” says Robert Aguilera, IBM’s lead executive for the Malta project, which is set to be completed in 2012. “The information that will be collected by the system will allow the government to make decisions on how to save money on water and electricity consumption.”

Cutting the volume of water that must be desalinated would, of course, reduce electricity use in the 122-square-mile (316-square-kilometer) nation.

With the U.S. Congress debating an economic stimulus package that includes tens of billions of dollars for greening the power grid, IBM sees smart grid-related technologies as a $126 billion market opportunity in 2009. That’s because what’s happening in Malta today will likely be the future elsewhere – no country is an island when it comes to climate change. Rising electricity prices and water shortages are afflicting regions stretching from Australia to Africa to California.

IBM spokeswoman Emily Horn says Big Blue has not yet publicly identified which companies will be providing the smart meters, software and other services for the Malta grid project.

Malta’s greenhouse gas emissions are expected to rise 62% above 1990 levels by 2012, according to the European Environment Agency, and as a member of the European Union the country will be under pressure to cut its carbon. A smart energy grid will help but Malta, like Hawaii and other island states, will have to start replacing carbon-intensive fuel oil with renewable energy.

The island could present opportunities for other types of smart networks. According to the Maltese government, Malta has the second-highest concentration of cars in the world, with 660 vehicles per square kilometer. That also contributes to the country’s dependence on imported oil and its greenhouse gas emissions.

Given that Silicon Valley company Better Place has described islands as the ideal location to install its electric car charging infrastructure, perhaps CEO Shai Agassi should be looking at adding Malta to the list of countries that have signed deals with the startup.

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