The Smart Grid Needs an App Store, says Silver Springs Networks

Smart grid equipment firm is launching software platform that lets other use big data from the grid

3 min read
The Smart Grid Needs an App Store, says Silver Springs Networks
Image: iStockphoto

With all the buzz around the Internet of Things, it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that the electricity grid already operates with millions of connected meters and sensors. Yet writing applications for these programmable machines is too hard, which blocks the full potential of the smart grid, says Silver Spring Networks.

The Silicon Valley-based company this week will introduce software designed simplify the process of programming meters and sensors on the grid and capturing the huge amounts of data they produce. It will launch the software, called the SilverLink Sensor Network, on Monday to coincide with the DistribuTech utility industry conference.

In the United States alone, there are more than 46 million smart meters installed, according to the Institute for Electric Innovation, and worldwide shipments of smart meters are expected to top 100 million per year in a few years. Often utilities ping smart meters every fifteen minutes to monitor customers’ power usage, generating mountains of data every day. There are a number of other connected devices that produce energy-related information, such as smart thermostats that work over home WiFi networks. Utilities, meanwhile, increasingly have sensors in grid equipment, such as transformers and power lines.

The problem is that collecting and analyzing streams of data from smart meters and other digital devices is expensive and slow, says Anil Gadre, the executive vice president of products at Silver Spring Networks. The result with smart meters is a situation where these two-way meters perform useful, but a fairly limited set of applications, such as automated bill reading or locating faults after a power outage. But the growing utility digital network could be used for a number of other applications that benefit both consumers and utilities, he says.

“Everybody expected that when they installed these giant networks in the smart grid that they’d get a whole lot more out of it than they already are,” says Scott Young, senior director for software applications and analytics at Silver Spring Networks. “If we unleash the data, it will look a lot more like the Internet is today.”

The SilverLink Sensor Network is cloud-based software that provides a set of APIs to access meters and other devices. The APIs create a gateway to these machines without forcing programmers to learn proprietary network protocols and data formats. That software effectively creates a platform on which Silver Spring Networks, utilities, and third-party application developers can write custom applications that uses smart grid data. Silver Spring Networks manages the APIs and hosts applications, much the way Apple or Google host app stores for smart phones and tablets.

Startup PlotWatt intends to use the software to collect and analyze meter data to tell people how much energy different appliances use and what the projected annual costs are. Similarly, another company called Bidgely itemizes electricity bills, compares your usage to other people's, and provides personalized recommendations on how to save energy.

Silver Spring Networks also signed on a few partner companies that intend to use the platform to create applications for utilities. For instance, startup AutoGrid uses data from different sources to generate more accurate power forecasts, alert utilities of line voltage problems, and run demand response programs to lower peak-time power use. 

For more applications like these to flourish, the programming model for the smart grid needs to change, says Gadre. Today, meter data is typically collected and placed in a database for analysis. But being able to query meters in near real time opens up new possibilities. For instance, a smart meter could communicate that power rates are very high and tell that home's electric vehicle charger to charge when rates are lower. Or the inverters that convert solar panels’ direct current to alternating current could make adjustments to make sure the voltage is stable on a power line. Utilities could also provide up-to-the-minute forecasts of monthly bills to consumers based on near real-time information.

It’s more likely that specialized software companies, rather than utilities, will develop these new types of applications, says Young. Utilities often lack the technical skills that a software company brings and many are struggling to effectively use the large amounts of data they now produce.

Silver Spring Networks makes the IP-based wireless networking built into smart meters, but it says its software can work with other networks. As a company, it’s trying to earn money by providing services, such as big data analytics, that make use of the existing infrastructure. “This giant network exists and it’s largely under-utilized," Young says.

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Smokey the AI

Smart image analysis algorithms, fed by cameras carried by drones and ground vehicles, can help power companies prevent forest fires

7 min read
Smokey the AI

The 2021 Dixie Fire in northern California is suspected of being caused by Pacific Gas & Electric's equipment. The fire is the second-largest in California history.

Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

The 2020 fire season in the United States was the worst in at least 70 years, with some 4 million hectares burned on the west coast alone. These West Coast fires killed at least 37 people, destroyed hundreds of structures, caused nearly US $20 billion in damage, and filled the air with smoke that threatened the health of millions of people. And this was on top of a 2018 fire season that burned more than 700,000 hectares of land in California, and a 2019-to-2020 wildfire season in Australia that torched nearly 18 million hectares.

While some of these fires started from human carelessness—or arson—far too many were sparked and spread by the electrical power infrastructure and power lines. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) calculates that nearly 100,000 burned hectares of those 2018 California fires were the fault of the electric power infrastructure, including the devastating Camp Fire, which wiped out most of the town of Paradise. And in July of this year, Pacific Gas & Electric indicated that blown fuses on one of its utility poles may have sparked the Dixie Fire, which burned nearly 400,000 hectares.

Until these recent disasters, most people, even those living in vulnerable areas, didn't give much thought to the fire risk from the electrical infrastructure. Power companies trim trees and inspect lines on a regular—if not particularly frequent—basis.

However, the frequency of these inspections has changed little over the years, even though climate change is causing drier and hotter weather conditions that lead up to more intense wildfires. In addition, many key electrical components are beyond their shelf lives, including insulators, transformers, arrestors, and splices that are more than 40 years old. Many transmission towers, most built for a 40-year lifespan, are entering their final decade.

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