Smart-grid start-up Tendril is using a classic computer industry game plan in a bid to create the equivalent of the Windows operating system for a 21st century electricity grid.
The basis of Tendril's partner program is a set of technical specifications, or application programming interfaces (APIs), for both its software, which talks to utilities' back-office systems, and for its Zigbee-based energy-management hardware.
It's not clear that unlocking Tendril's products will result in a thriving "ecosystem" of partners like Microsoft's Windows enjoys, or that it's technology will become a de facto industry standard. But the move is significant in that it signals a broader shift toward interoperability and away from proprietary technology in the utility industry.
"This is the right thing to do. More vendors should be doing this," said Jesse Berst, the founder of Smart Grid News. "With standards in the area they're proposing, you can put people (like electricians) to work and create a platform for future prosperity based on the smart grid."
In the computer industry, all the large software companies have sought to build a technical platform for third-party developers in the hopes of creating a critical mass of add-on products.
Technical standards around software development and data exchange, meanwhile, helped lay the foundation for countless products and innovations, from the Linux operating system to Wikipedia.
Utilities have historically invested in proprietary technology. Slowly, though, standards are playing a larger role, in part because of regulatory pressure, said Berst, who predicted that it will take another 18 to 24 months for necessary standards to be worked out.
The point of modernizing the electricity grid is to show consumers how to use less electricity and to help utilities operate the power grid more reliably and efficiently.
Although "smart grid" covers a wide range of products, the technology is generally geared toward collecting and communicating information on the flow of electricity.
Like others, Tendril makes a line of devices, including a wireless thermostat and an Internet gateway, that provides a method for automatically collecting information on home energy usage.
Once centralized in Tendril's data center, consumers can see their real-time consumption via a Web browser on a PC as well as an iPhone or BlackBerry. By seeing how usage varies over time and how one household compares to others, the idea is that people will seek to lower their energy consumption.
For utilities, real-time data collection provides insight into energy demand, allowing them to run the grid more efficiently. Through energy-efficiency programs, utilities can control customers' appliances and equipment remotely. A store could allow the utility to turn down lights during the middle of the day, or a consumer could allow the dryer to turn off the gas for a few minutes.
Dialing down energy use is most important during peak energy times, like the middle of a hot summer day. By dialing back demand with "demand-response" software, utilities can avoid starting up expensive, polluting power-generating plants to meet peak demand.
Smart grid building steam
As part of its open software strategy, Tendril said last week that its server software now adheres to a demand-response standard called OpenADR. Adhering to the standard means that Tendril customers can automate energy-saving changes in their home appliances, according to Tendril CEO Adrian Tuck.
For example, a consumer could program the TV and entertainment equipment to turn off completely in the middle of the night, rather than consume energy on standby mode. Or a consumer could schedule the dishwasher to run when electricity rates are lowest.
Tendril hopes that opening up access to its technology will lead to a flourishing of third-party applications, like Google gadgets that display your home's information in real time on a PC.
"One of the tenets of our business is that we believe that nobody really understands where energy efficiency will go once usage information has been liberated from the grid," he said. "And almost everybody we compete against is architected to be closed."
In theory, standards benefit utility customers because they can choose among different suppliers. Pacific Gas & Electric, which is considered one of the most forward-looking utilities in the U.S., will use standards-based, rather than proprietary, products in its upcoming smart-grid trial, CEO Peter Darbee.
Smart grid is considered one of the most promising technology areas this year because the planned federal stimulus package includes a number of incentives for utilities to launch smart-grid trial programs.
It's also becoming better understood in the general public--General Electric aired a smart-grid advertisement during Sunday's Super Bowl--and tens of thousands of consumers now participate in trial programs.
But even with the growing awareness of the technology's potential, smart-grid vendors say that one of the biggest problems is getting notoriously conservative utilities to actually deploy the technology, particularly products from relatively small providers.
"It's not clear that utilities know how to move rapidly. These are guys that famously make the government look quick," said Tuck.