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Alliance promotes smart grid for home nets

Posted: 30 Mar 2010     Print Version  Bookmark and Share

Keywords:smart grid  home network  Zigbee  Bluetooth 

U-Snap Alliance members promote smart grid for home nets by aiming to roll out the first products in Q3 based on its specifications for carrying smart grid data over home networks. It is one of a handful of new efforts seeking ways to unite today's fragmented wired and wireless technologies for emerging energy applications.

So-called demand response applications are expected to be big drivers of the move to a smart electric grid. That's because they will appeal to consumer's wallets, letting them monitor and adjust their energy use during peak and off-peak hours to lower their utility bills.

But such applications have been stymied by the fragmented nature of today's home networks and the diversity of powered systems in the home.

Many utilities see Zigbee as a de facto home network of choice. Thus it is built into a majority of the smart meters going into field trials today.

However, some vendors are promoting various flavours of powerline networks as natural for demand response apps in the home. Meanwhile backers of Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and a handful of proprietary wireless networks are gearing up to be the carriers of energy data.

"You have a whole class of manufacturers on the sidelines because they don't know what to build and utilities don't find adoption because there is no standard," said Barry Haaser, executive director of the 30-member U-Snap Alliance that has defined a plug-in slot and low-level protocol to bring smart grid data to systems on a home network.

The need for a unified approach is so great that government planners at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) warned they might mandate a solution as part of a national effort to draft smart grid standards if industry doesn't pick one in a timely manner. The threat of government intervention from NIST has helped motivate as many as four efforts to date.

The Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers (AHAM) has enlisted EnerNex Corp., a consulting firm that is also helping NIST organise smart grid standards efforts, to draft a detailed review of all home network technologies. AHAM hopes the review will help it decide how to advise members on the issues.

Meanwhile, a powerline working group that is part of the broad NIST effort has created a committee to hammer out by mid-May a set of coexistence standards for the various flavours of powerline networks. The charter covers both narrow and broadband versions of powerline nets, according to Stefano Galli, a lead scientist at Panasonic R&D Company of America chairing the committee which has posted online an update on its efforts.

The Smart Grid Interoperability Panel (SGIP), an overarching board driving the NIST effort, has chartered a separate group to investigate ways to harmonise wireless home network standard. The group, chaired by a standards director from the Consumer Electronics Association, has not yet reached a conclusion about what path to pursue.

Another committee under the SGIP has drafted a white paper taking the position that the market must be left to decide what physical layer technologies will be best suited for linking appliances in the home.

"No knowledge base exists on how consumers will utilise smart appliances, [and] no single technology choice can cover all applications," says the draft paper now online. "Allowing any mechanism other than the market to decide is not only ill advised, it is anti-competitive," it concludes.

Evolving spec
Meanwhile, members of the U-Snap Alliance are set to announce products based on the groups. The specs call for a 1.5 inch-square module that could cost less than Rs.461.77 ($10) translating existing home network protocols into a low-level SPI link.

The initial work on the spec was done by Radio Thermostat Co. and a group of graduate students at Berkeley under a grant from the California Energy Commission. They borrowed the idea of the PCMCIA card used in notebook computers. The alliance was formed to hold and promote the intellectual property behind the spec which is still evolving.

"We formed this concept because it was clear industry was not going to be able to narrow down home area protocols for some time," said Haaser.

The initial spec is geared for wireless networks including Radio Data System, Wi-Fi, Zigbee and Z-Wave, targeting wireless thermostats. A version 2 of the spec is due in June that adds support for the Smart Energy 1.0 protocol and a broader set of home appliances including water heaters, energy-use displays and home automation devices for irrigation, lighting, pool pumps and spas.

The 2.0 version also makes improvements in the SPI software. "There were some short cuts taken in original spec that SPI developers didn't appreciate," Haaser said.

"Products based on version 1 will be on retail shelves at Home Depot this summer," he said, noting four prototypes were shown at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. "We will see a wave of version 2 products used in utility smart grid trials this summer, and we could pull together version 3 in a few months," he added.

A version 3 could add support for powerline networks and the Smart Energy 2.0 protocol.

Modularity cost
While ambitious, the U-Snap effort has several shortcomings including its costs and lack of broad backing.

Current alliance members include American Electric Power, Google, meter maker Itron, Portland General Electric, Direct Energy, Zensys, and chip companies Gainspan, Marvell and Microchip.

Although a handful of utilities are members of the alliance, it lacks buy in from the largest regional utilities. "We'd love to see the California utilities join, and some of the big systems companies like Whirlpool, Carrier, Honeywell, Panasonic and Samsung," said Haaser, noting TVs, PCs and smart phones should also have access to smart grid nets. Consumer companies want big volumes, the industry, however, is not here yet, according to Haaser.

NIST has expressed concern the alliance is not a formal standards group. Haaser said the alliance has decided it wants to mature its specs before it takes them to formal standards groups which tend to move slowly.

One of the biggest problems with the U-Snap approach is its added costs.

"Modularity has a cost, and it may be too much to support in the appliance industry where a few cents of component cost makes a difference in being profitable or not," said Erich Gunther, chief technology officer for EnerNex. "Also, the mechanical considerations for the physical modular interface vary greatly for different appliances," he said.

"AHAM seems to want to support a much simpler interface that can help them control those costs," he added. Ease of use for consumers is also a concern for appliance makers, said David Wollman, a NIST organiser working on smart grid standards.

"What they are looking for is an agreement on a set of limited standards they can implement straight into an appliance and let it be available nationwide," said Wollman. "They are looking not for four or five standards but a couple—maybe one wired and one wireless#8212;or ideally, just one," he said.

- Rick Merritt
EE Times

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