August 8, 2007 9:00 AM PDT

Is there green in 'misfit' technologies?

Is there green in 'misfit' technologies?
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Global warming spells bad news for polar bears, tropical nations and many crops. But it just might give a boost to some less popular networking standards.

Utilities and appliance makers are trying to come up with ways to save energy by reducing household power consumption, and part of the answer may lie in some networking standards, such as Zigbee, and power line-based communications that have so far seen only limited adoption.

Here's the idea: Utilities want to install smart power meters inside homes and office buildings that will be able to control (within limits) air conditioner levels or even shut off power to certain appliances within specified hours. Homeowners would get discounts on their electricity bills, while utilities would get a better handle on power consumption. Potentially, it could even give them the luxury of deferring new power plants.

Enter Zigbee, a low-power, low-bandwidth wireless networking standard introduced in 2004 that lets different consumer electronics devices chat with each other. Linked into a Zigbee network, consumers wouldn't be able to get power to their dryer during agreed-upon peak electricity hours, for instance. In essence, Zigbee would enforce the contract made between utilities and consumers.

Although computer makers haven't warmed up to Zigbee, appliance makers are now experimenting with ways to add Zigbee, said Michael Valocchi, a partner in the Energy and Utilities, Global Business Services unit at IBM. The Zigbee Alliance, which helps promote the spec, is also working with utilities and appliance makers.

"It is almost like fitting in a couple of missing pieces into the puzzle," IBM's Valocchi said. "This puts in some level of certainty with demand response," he said.

CenterPoint Energy, a utility in the Houston area, is running a power line/Zigbee pilot now and will begin to roll it out commercially in 2008.

PHI, an East Coast utility, has started to test networking technologies for smart meters and will begin to roll out networked metering technologies over the coming four years (it won't use broadband over power line but another protocol). IBM is consulting with both utilities on these projects.

Southern California Edison has also kicked off smart meter trials that incorporate Zigbee.

EnerNoc, which sells smart metering services and technologies to utilities, is eyeing different wireless technologies as well.

"Hopefully, Zigbee and some of these other standards will allow us to do lots of things we have wanted to do but couldn't afford economically to do," said Gregg Dixon, senior vice president of sales and marketing at EnerNoc. Nonetheless, he added, "There is a lot of development that needs to be done."

Another company working in this area is China's Miartech, which develops power line communications for utility applications. The company is concentrating on chips with lower-than-broadband data rates.

Some skeptics have pointed out that consumers won't likely put up with utilities controlling their air conditioners or pool heaters. Early experiments, however, show otherwise. EnerNoc and Comverge, another smart metering company, have both seen steady revenue growth over the past several years.

In Europe, the concept is already on a roll, said Valocchi. In Italy, a utility is offering deep discounts on electricity bills to consumers who agree to shut off their electricity for a weekend. It's popular with people who travel a lot or have summer homes, he said.

See more CNET content tagged:
ZigBee, appliance company, powerline, power consumption, IBM Corp.


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As long as the utilities pay for it
I would like to see them install a hub in homes so that the homeowner can see their usage. Maybe a smart service box that could provide a meter on a per-breaker basis or better yet, down to the outlet/light switch.

Then the homeowner could manually adjust them as well.
Posted by jamie.p.walsh (288 comments )
Reply Link Flag
The cost of this sort of thing is just passed to the consumer, just like taxes on corporations and other businesses.

The tax, plus whatever it costs the company, like wages for the clerks that fill out the paperwork and their supervisors, and lawyers.
Posted by Phillep_H (497 comments )
Link Flag
As we, the people, begin to become more conscious, both environmentally and economically, the smart box would be an excellent idea to save energy and the planet.
Posted by healer4all (1 comment )
Link Flag
I work rotating shifts....
...and therefore sometimes *have* to do laundry during the day, since I am working 3pm-11pm or 7pm-3am. I had damn well be able to get my dryer to work!

Likewise, I may also be working 11pm-7am and sleeping 8am-4pm. I need it cold in order to sleep during the day.

I do my bit to save the planet: recycle, ride a bike or walk to work, don't have an SUV. But if the electric company thinks they can dictate when I use the things I paid for, they can take a hike!
Posted by jaysun.cousins (3 comments )
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Not mandatory, just a voluntary price break.
They are just talking about giving you the option of having your stuff put on a switch. If you take that option, they will cut your electric rate, or give you some kind of bonus. They are not talking about making it mandatory.

If you choose not to sign up you will pay more for electricity than the family next door. Also remember that this technology will not work through a power conditioner.
Posted by ralfthedog (1589 comments )
Link Flag
IP instead of Zigbee
This article's audience might want to know that one can now run IP (Internet Protocol) over the low power radio links which Zigbee also uses (IEEE 802.15.4), thus giving the best of both worlds:

A way to network appliances, meters, thermostats, etc., using the Internet Protocol (IP) that is open, interoperable and easy to interconnect with the rest of the Internet, with the low power, long life on battery, and fit for small embedded items like home devices or utility grid devices.

The standard is known as "6LoWPAN" (IPv6 over Low Power Personal Area Networks) and was developed at the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), where all IP related protocols are standardized.

Full disclosure: I'm with Arch Rock Corp., a wireless sensor networking company, with the industry's first IETF standards-based IP
sensor network systems.

Arch Rock's web site offers tutorials and pointers to the IETF 6LoWPAN specification, for education.

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Posted by rolandacra (1 comment )
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