by Shai Sachs, Sat Feb 21, 2009 at 08:56:38 AM EST
One of the lower-profile sub-plots within the stimulus package debate was about the use of open standards in the smart grid. The package sets aside $4.5 billion for the smart grid. Although that's only a fraction of the total investment needed to build the smart grid - perhaps as little as 5 or 10% - it's still a big chunk of change, and the strings attached to that money by Congress will make a big difference in the evolution of the new grid. So it's no surprise that smart meter builders tried to weigh in on open standards earlier this month. An early version of the House bill required that utilities must use an Internet-based open protocol (meaning IP, almost certainly); a later version required "Internet-based or other open protocols and standards if available and appropriate." A group of electricity meter providers sent the Senate a letter complaining about the IP-only language, saying that it would interfere with existing projects. As far as I can tell, the final language is actually a bit weaker than the flexible "IP or something else" provision (from page 30 of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act):
OPEN PROTOCOLS AND STANDARDS.--The Secretary shall require as a condition of receiving funding under this subsection that demonstration projects utilize open protocols and standards (including Internet-based protocols and standards) if available and appropriate.
Earlier this week, Secretary Chu said that he wants to start deploying smart grid standards, although his actual language left plenty of wiggle room on the question of IP versus other open standards.
Meanwhile, out in the field, the battle is already joined. San Diego Gas and Electric announced earlier this month that it will start installing 2.3 million smart meters in its customers homes. In a country with about 7 million smart meters in operation, that's a pretty hefty deployment. The meters will be Itron OpenWay meters, built on the ZigBee standard (which is an alternative to IP); the rollout is expected in March of this year. At around the same time, Google announced its PowerMeter project and eMeter announced a major new deal which will allow some Houston-area customers to better monitor their electricity consumption.
We are not far, I hope, from the point when smart grid technology becomes widely available - meaning not just that there are a lot of meters installed in a lot of homes, but also that the entry costs for small-scale entrepreneurs to build applications on top of the grid will be getting lower and lower. As far as I can tell, there are no open source software projects for extracting data from smart meters, but smart meter start-up Tendril announced a new API for its products (which are, it appears, ZigBee-based) earlier this month. Unfortunately, the API is currently only available to Tendril partners. But I suspect that smart grid applications will open up significantly in the next year; I imagine that it won't be long before we see Facebook and iPhone applications for monitoring and calibrating residential electric consumption.
This is great news for the environment and the green economy, of course. I also think it's great news for the progressive economy, because it means more opportunities for liberal entrepreneurs to profit from environmental protection, and more opportunities to cycle those profits through the progressive economy.