Green Button and Tendril – developers as kingmakers in the energy space now as well?

Green button

One of the greatest success stories in the energy sector in the last year is the speed with which America’s Green Button initiative has been adopted.

The project started in September 2011 with a challenge laid down by then US CTO Aneesh Chopra:

today at GridWeek, I challenged the smart grid ecosystem to deliver on the vision of Green Button and provide customers access to their energy usage information electronically. With this information at their fingertips, consumers would be enabled to make more informed decisions about their energy use and, when coupled with opportunities to take action, empowered to actively manage their energy use

His challenge was taken up by the industry with almost unseemly haste.

Green Button data standards were quickly drawn up in conjunction with America’s NIST – this is vital to ensure that Green Button data is cross comparable across utilities – and more importantly, that energy management applications written for Green Button data works across all utilities. This immediately creates a significant userbase for Green Button energy apps.

Then California?s three largest utilities ? Pacific Gas & Electric, San Diego Gas & Electric, and Southern California Edison worked to create a ?Green Button? that allows customers to download their detailed energy usage with one click. Others utilities quickly followed suit and now at time of writing, 25 utility providers are supporting Green Button, including some of the nation’s biggest, like American Electric Power, CentrePoint Energy, and PacifiCorp. This brings the number of households and businesses capable of downloading their energy use information via Green Button in the US to 30 million [PDF] as of May 2012.

Technology companies also joined the efforts, and the list of those involved is long, including most of the usual suspects (Honeywell, Itron, Oracle, Schneider-Electric, Siemens, SilverSpring Networks, and Tendril) with the surprising exceptions of SAP and Logica.

Tendril are a supplier to utilities and they have now made it possible for any of their utility customers to export Green Button formatted files. Nothing too surprising about that, I hear you say. True enough, but where it starts to get really interesting is that Tendril have created GreenButtonConnect.com, a Green Button ecosystem. On this site, consumers can upload their Green Button information to any one of a number of apps hosted there to analyse their energy consumption. Even better though, any developer can use the Tendril Connect platform to develop energy apps, get access to the energy internet and have Tendril help co-market the app!

Tendril have been one of the first to realise that the old RedMonk saw Developers are the new Kingmakers applies just as much to the energy space, as it does to enterprise IT.

To this end, Tendril have also been sponsoring Hackathons themed around energy, like the recent Cleanweb Hackathon in Boulder, Colorado and January’s Cleanweb Hackathon in New York.

In a wide-ranging discussion with Tendril’s VP of Policy, Cameron Brooks, yesterday he opined that while the Green Button files are as yet, not nearly real-time, they will go more and more that direction before long. This will go a long way to facilitating the kinds of value add energy services I posted about recently here.

Photo Credit http://www.samcatchesides.com/

SAP’s Sustainability announcements at Sapphire Now

SAP co-CEO Jim Hagemann Snabe at Sapphire Now 2012

SAP co-CEO Jim Hagemann Snabe at Sapphire Now 2012

Technology innovation plays a major part in creating a sustainable world tomorrow

So said SAP co-CEO Jim Hagemann Snabe at this year’s SAP Sapphire Now conference in Orlando. He then went on to predict three major trends in computing for the coming years – according to Jim, in the next five years everything will move to Cloud, everything will be in main memory and everything will be mobile.

This wasn’t just some off-the-cuff remark – these three developments are core to SAP’s product roadmap – even in the Sustainability space.

In the mobile space for example, at Sapphire Now SAP announced a new version of a mobile app for incident management. With this app, workers can now log issues from their mobile device with a photo or video, as well as an audio recording, and send it directly to an incident or safety manager for corrective action. This crowd-sourcing of safety information also has built-in tracking of the reported incident which is hugely empowering for workers who may previously have felt their voice wasn’t heard. And for the companies deploying this solution it leads to a safer work environment and a happier workforce.

This puts me in mind of an initiative IBM rolled out with the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) where they enabled students, teachers and staff to report issues like water leaks, broken aircon/heating, exposed cables and so on, by sending text messages and photos through their mobile phones. More please.

Also in the mobile sustainability space, SAP have their Electronic Medical Record app [SilverLight warning] – an app which gives doctors instant access to a patient’s electronic medical records.

In the Cloud space, SAP have made two major recent acquisitions – Successfactors and more recently Ariba at a cost of roughly $7.7bn. This is a clear indicator that while SAP maybe late to the party, it is serious about catching up.

And in the Sustainability space? Well SAP’s carbon management software, Carbon Impact OnDemand is already Cloud delivered. At SapphireNow SAP announced that they are going to rollout an on-demand service for product safety that the company is calling the SAP Product Stewardship and Safety Network. This will be a network where safety professionals can share safety information and best practices.

The irony of sustainability-related software being delivered via the Cloud, a technology which is not Green at all, is not lost on me. It does appear to be lost on SAP however – more on which in a follow-up post.

And finally in-memory computing – what is it? Well, you know how information held in RAM is much faster to access than information on disk, right? So HANA, SAP’s new in-memory database, is where the database is held in RAM for much faster data access. Also, in-memory databases can hold enormous quantities of data, and query them in milliseconds. This is a huge step forward in database technologies and according to SAP it will vastly simplify database maintenance as well because there should no longer be a need for large data warehouses.

Where do the HANA and Sustainability stories intersect? There are several examples – the first is in the area of Smart Grids and Smart meters. The volumes of information utility companies will be expected to handle after installing smart meters are orders of magnitude greater than anything they are used to. Realtime analysis of this firehose of information will allow for much better demand-side management, matching the demand curve to the supply curve, stabilising the grid and allowing for greater penetration of variable generators like wind and solar. Also, this availability of highly granular energy consumption data will facilitate the development of all kinds of new energy products and services that would have previously been impossible to offer. This is sorely needed by utilities who are in the uncomfortable position of currently (no pun) having to try to convince customers to buy less of their product.

Other use interesting cases are discussed in a great post on How Big Data Will Help Achieve Sustainability Goals by SAP’s Scott Bolick. And when you finish checking that out, head on over to Jennifer Lankheim’s post on SAP Situational Awareness for Public Sector where she discusses this new SAP Rapid Deployment Solution to help public safety and security organizations better anticipate, assess, and act on emergency situations.

We are only scratching the surface of what the implications of Big Data, Cloud, Mobility and in-memory computing are for sustainability. Expect to see far more announcements in this space in the near future.

Disclosure – SAP is a GreenMonk client and SAP paid my travel and expenses to attend Sapphire Now.

Photo Credit Tom Raftery

Utilities need to offer innovative energy services or risk being sidelined

Elderly man

The EU has mandated a rollout of smart meters to at least 80% of households by 2020. What are some of the transformative ways we will we use the extra energy consumption information these meters will bring?

Last November I wrote a blog post about new energy services and business models for utilities which the granular energy consumption smart meters measure will enable. In the post I noted that

according to the US Census Bureau:

The world?s 65-and-older population is projected to triple by midcentury, from 516 million in 2009 to 1.53 billion in 2050.

Further, there are currently 30 million solo-single households in the United States (more than the number of households containing married couples with children) and about one-third of these solo singles are men and women 65 years of age and older. The percentage is even higher in Europe.

Now, if I have an elderly relative living alone, wouldn’t it be a very useful service if I could receive a timely message from their utility company if there are deviations from the normal patterns of energy usage (if the lights aren’t turned off at 11pm or the coffee machine/kettle isn’t powered up at 8am)?

I have been positing this idea of using exceptions to normal energy use as triggers for alerts, especially for family members interested in the care of an elderly relative for quite some time. Every time I mentioned it though, I always received technical reasons why it wasn’t feasible. Until very recently that is.

A few weeks back I attended the SAP for Utilities event in Madrid. There I had a meeting with Axel Memminger where we were talking about SAP’s in-memory database HANA. Because HANA runs in-memory, it allows for very fast querying of massive datasets. This is fantastic for seeing trends in historic data but not for examining realtime info.

During our talk, Axel happened to mention that as part of the Sybase acquisition SAP now had picked up a realtime event processing engine called Event Insight. Event Insight was built to parse massive amounts of data looking for exceptions and triggering alerts in realtime.

It immediately occurred to me that this was the missing piece needed to allow utilities rollout enhanced energy services like the monitoring of elderly relatives I outlined above. When I explained this idea to Axel his eyes lit up and he started architecting the solution in his head as we discussed it.

“Would you be willing to pay for something like this?” he asked me at one point. “If this were offered for something like ?5 a month, I’d pay it in a heartbeat” I replied. And I strongly suspect I’m far from unique in this.

With utility companies facing reduced incomes from energy sales, it is only by providing imaginative energy services like this that utilities will secure their long-term viability.

Nor will they be alone in plying for this business. I can see services like this being offered by telcos as well and even more likely, it is a natural extension of services from care companies who typically already offer remote monitoring.

Unless utilities are innovative in the energy services they develop and offer, they may find themselves sidelined in their core-market. Who’d have predicted 10 years ago that Apple Computers would be the dominant player in music sales?

Photo Credit Tom Raftery

Logica and EdP’s smart grid trial in Évora

Energy management devices

Logica brought me to the pretty Portuguese town of Évora recently to check out the InovGrid project which they have been participating in, along with EdP and other partner companies.

InovGrid is an ambitious project to roll out smart grid technologies to six million customers across Portugal. Évora’s InovCity is the first stage of the project. There are 35,000 people living in Évora, almost all of whom have been issued with smart meters by now.

The smart meters are connected in realtime to in-home displays (like the one pictured above) which takes energy consumption readings every two seconds and plots it on the screen. It can display the usage data as kWh, CO2 or more tangibly, the € cost. If the home or business has an internet connection, this information can be viewed remotely on a computer or mobile device (as seen on the laptop on the right in the image above). Interestingly, there is two-way communication going on here, so if smart plugs are installed in the house, they can be controlled (on/off) from the in-home display, or remotely.

The information displayed on the in-home displays, and remotely, is not the same information which is sent to the utility for billing purposes. This may lead to some discrepancies in the € amount on the displays versus the amount on the bill at the end of the month. The smart meters send billing information to the utilities over Power Line Communications (with a GPRS backup). Even with the PLC connection, there is far too much data in 2 second reads, so a lower rate of reads is sent to the utility for billing purposes.

Interestingly, the in-home device shown above was installed in a coffee shop in Évora and it was possible to watch the fluctuations in the consumption graph in realtime as coffee was being made for customers. Also, the coffee shop realised €500 savings per annum in their energy bill when they examined the information from the device and realised they were not on the optimal tariff. It also demonstrated to them the savings to be had from turning off the coffee machine overnight, so the extra information from the device helped influence their behaviour.

EV Parking spot

EV Parking spot

Other than the smart meters, we were shown the information display in the town hall, which shows the realtime energy consumption of the building. This information is also supposed to be available on the town hall’s website for citizens to see remotely, though I failed to find it there (doubtless due to my lack of Portuguese!).

Other nice features on display were dedicated parking places for electric vehicles (EV’s), complete with charging stations as well as LED streetlights with motion sensors which dim the lights in the absence of people on the streets. The EV parking place was predictably empty due more to the general unavailability of EV’s than anything else. The LED streetlights though was interesting. Very few towns or cities have, as yet, embraced LED streetlights and yet 50% of a town’s energy spend can be on streetlights. LED lights can save 80-90% of the energy cost over traditional streetlights, they can report back their status (obviating the need to have staff checking for lighting failures) and they have a much longer lifetime, so they save on maintenance costs as well as energy.

It would be interesting to hear back from the InovCity people how much Évora is saving on lighting costs from the move to LED (even if only the energy savings) but even more interesting would be to try to see if the rollout of the smart meters and in-home displays has led to any sustained, per home, energy consumption reduction.

One last comment on this project – I can’t help but feel that the provision of in-home displays is an idea whose time has past. These days most people have access to a tablet, a smartphone or a computer where they can access this information. I suspect as the InovGrid project rolls out beyond the 35,000 inhabitants of Évora to rest of Portugal, the IHD’s will become at best, an added extra option, or quietly killed off.

Photo credits Tom Raftery

Smart meter electricity usage data and energy services

Senior citizen

Utility companies face significant challenges in the coming years, not least of which is the the need to increase revenues while helping customers reduce their consumption.

One trump card they will have is the data from their smart meter rollouts. This will enable them to offer energy services around the data which would not previously have been possible.

Simple examples of this are the ability to alert people if their consumption is about to tip them into a higher tariff band or, for people with holiday homes, a notification if the lights turn on when their property is supposed to be unoccupied.

These would be quite basic offerings – but with a little bit of thought one can imagine other higher value options.

Consider that according to the US Census Bureau:

The world?s 65-and-older population is projected to triple by midcentury, from 516 million in 2009 to 1.53 billion in 2050.

Further, there are currently 30 million solo-single households in the United States (more than the number of households containing married couples with children) and about one-third of these solo singles are men and women 65 years of age and older. The percentage is even higher in Europe.

Now, if I have an elderly relative living alone, wouldn’t it be a very useful service if I could receive a timely message from their utility company if there are deviations from the normal patterns of energy usage (if the lights aren’t turned off at 11pm or the coffee machine/kettle isn’t powered up at 8am)?

This kind of service should be quite straightforward for electricity utilities to provide once they start receiving the detailed energy usage data which smart meters will deliver. This will enable utilities to transition to becoming suppliers of energy services and open up entirely new revenue streams for them.

Photo credit gagilas

Implications of the data explosion for utilities

At the recent SAP for Utilities event in San Antonio, I caught up with Martin Mysyk, Senior Architect for TransAlta and we discussed the implications for utilities of the massive data explosion that is occurring in their industry right now.

Here is a transcription of our conversation:

Tom Raftery: Hi everyone! Welcome to GreenMonk TV. I?m at the SAP for Utilities event in San Antonio, Texas, and with me I have Martin Mysyk, who is the Enterprise Architect for TransAlta.

Martin, we?ve been talking about the amount of data utility companies you?re going to be dealing with and the mountain? I heard a talk earlier this year in Orlando, where one of the utility companies was talking about the change in meter reads from 75 million a year to 120 billion.

Now, there is also the other side away from smart meters and into just the devices on the grid itself and the amount of information they will be sending back to utility companies, what are they going to do with all this information and how are they going to handle it?

Martin Mysyk: Well, I think we do have to look at new ways of handling that amount of data, how we?re going to store it, how we?re going to back it up. And we?re monitoring so many more data points as we move from an analog world to a digital world. There?s an acceleration of the amount of data points where some of our assets may have had a couple of thousand data points we?re monitoring, taking in.

Some of our newer instrumentation generates 20,000 data points that we can monitor. So, that?s a large amount of — big influx of data that we have to — you want to keep it real time and that takes new techniques, new technology that we have to look at to be able to keep that on track and to be able to extract the information out that we need.

Tom Raftery: Okay, but 20,000 data points, is that too much? I mean, how can utility companies make any sense of that amount of data?

Martin Mysyk: That?s where you need another level of intelligence to layer on top of what you?re retrieving out of there, because you really — you can?t read that from a human perspective, you need software that looks for exceptions or things that are out of range to deal with those because whenever things are operating properly you don?t care about it. It?s just when there are exceptions or something?s going to impact your production capability that you want to know about that.

Tom Raftery: At the backend you?re going to need bigger servers, you?re going to need bigger failover facilities and all that?

Martin Mysyk: Yes, and the network ties it all together. So, wherever that is stored only high-speed networks have a lot of band with to carry the data, whether its onsite or everyone talks about being in the cloud. If you put it in the cloud, you are going to need lots of pipes to get it there.

Tom Raftery: This sounds like a lot of investment for utility companies, is it worth it?

Martin Mysyk: I think so, because we have to be aggressive on how we manage our data and our decision making capability needs to accelerate, because when we move into a more comparative global marketplace you have to have that decision making power and to do that you need the — to make information out of your data and that is only going to accelerate as time goes on.

Tom Raftery: Cool. Great. Martin, thanks a million.

Centrica’s Smart Meter Analytics application could make energy management compelling

As I have mentioned here previously, Smart Meters are going to bring a flood of data to utility companies which will need to be properly managed and which can be a source of intelligence for the utility, if they mine it well.

At the recent SAP Sapphire Now conference, UK Energy retailer Centrica showcased their Smart Meter Analytics application running on SAP’s HANA. HANA is SAP’s in-memory computing solution (In-memory computing moves data off traditional storage on servers and into RAM, providing a performance boost over having to read the data off disks).

Centrica are the largest single instance utility on an SAP system with 18 million residential accounts for and one million business accounts. Right now they are billing residential accounts every three months and they are managing 75 million meter reads per annum.

With the move to smart meters, Centrica will take electricity reads every 30 minutes and gas reads once per day. This means a shift from 75 million meter reads per annum to 120 billion meter reads a year. 120 billion – that’s billion with a b. That’s a phenomenal amount of data to have to deal with. Doing any kind of traditional analytics on a data set that large would very quickly get totally bogged down. One of the interesting things about HANA however is that the performance scales linearly with the hardware. If it’s starting to slow a bit with 120 billion meter reads, throw a couple of extra terabytes of ram and servers at it and hey presto you are back in business, or so the theory goes!

In the demo above, Centrica are using the analytics to examine their customer segmentation. They can look at the energy profile of similar businesses in a specific area and where there are anomalies, they can work with those businesses to help them cut their energy consumption until it is more in line with their peers. Increasing pressures to be energy-efficient and to reduce carbon footprints are being looked on by Centrica as an opportunity to open an energy services business, going to customers to help them to become more energy-efficient. The Smart Meter Analytics application is going to be crucial for this new practice within Centrica.

Centrica's Energy Efficiency Scorecard

Centrica's Energy Efficiency Scorecard

In the residential market the Smart Meter Analytics app presents householders with an Energy Efficiency Scorecard. This facilitates charting actual usage patterns against the various tariffs Centrica offers to find the optimal rate plan. The score card also allows home-owners to compare their energy efficiency with similar households in the same area.

This is an impressive use of Smart Meter analytics and it presents hugely useful information but to avoid a short MTKD (Mean Time To Kitchen Drawer – the time it takes for people to get bored with this app and metaphorically stuff it in the kitchen drawer), the scorecard has to keep homeowners engaged. There are several ways of doing this. One of main ones would be to bring in some gamification – make a game of it. The Scorecard could set energy reduction targets for people to meet in the next set period, allot points or awards for achieving reduction targets, build social media in for sharing achievements and put up a leaderboard to add some real competition to the game.

Energy management applications to-date have suffered from the fact that they were working with estimated data a lot of the time, from lack of a significant networked dataset and from a lack of a usable analytics engine. Large energy retailers, like Centrica, have the opportunity now to change that and to make energy management in the home compelling. Let’s hope they make it so.

Disclosure – SAP paid my travel and expenses to attend Sapphire Now.

Smart Grid Technology conference

Trust

Photo credit TerryJohnston

I attended the Smart Grid Technology conference in London last week and there were a number of interesting themes which became apparent.

The main theme to emerge was the question of how utilities could engage the residential customer. This is good news – the first step on the road to recovery is acknowledging that you have a problem!

The other two discussion points which came to the fore were 1) that energy is too cheap for small price shifts to incentivise behavioural change and 2) what to do with all the data arising from smart meter roll-outs (the prevailing opinion was that data from smart meters should be used for billing purposes only because that there was far too much data to be of any practical use!). I’ll talk about these in other posts.

The question of how to engage customers is a new one for utilities. Remember, this is an industry that refers to its customers as ‘load points’ or ‘rate payers’! Traditionally, the only time utilities interact with customers is to send a bill, to disconnect, or when the customer calls to enquire why their power is out. Not the most positive of communications, I’m sure you’ll agree! Consequently consumer attitudes to utilities vary from outright distrust to, at the very best, indifference.

How to change this?

Well, any councillor will tell you the best way to fix a relationship is through increased communication. Utilities need to really step up their game when it comes to communicating with their customers. This needs to be done using a combination of updating traditional communications, targeted, viral social media campaigns and good old-fashioned outreach. And this needs to be an ongoing, sustained two-way communication, not once-off and not not one-way.

It is only by building an ongoing conversation with their clients that utilities can build the necessary trust to engage customers in smart grids.

What is the best communications protocol for Smart Grids?

Communications tower

Photo credit urbanfeel

One of the key tenets of a Smart Grid is that you have real-time, two-way communications between the consumer and the utility company. To enable this a communications infrastructure needs to be rolled out. Before that can happen though, we need to examine the different communications protocols to find the most suitable one.

I was talking to Andy Slater, the EMEA Marketing Director for Sensus, the other day. Sensus are the company providing the communications platform for UK-based Arqiva’s Smart Grid pilot in Reading [PDF]. And their proposed Smart Grid communications infrastructure for all of Britain. While, in North America Sensus have 8 million end points rolled out across 225 utilities.

The Sensus solution uses long range radio to communicate with smart meters. This allows Sensus to achieve a 99.5% first-time connection rate during installations, according to Slater. This is higher than most other technologies (GPRS, WiMax, etc.) and so saves a considerable amount of money by obviating the need for a second call out or re-engineering.

When I mentioned that Power Line Communications (PLC) would, by definition, have as close as possible to 100% first-time connectivity, Andy countered that that’s all well and good for electrical meters but the Sensus solution also works for gas and water meters. He then went on to point out that PLC requires far more repeaters to boost the signal and that it is not suitable for high voltage equipment.

The other advantage which Andy mentioned is that for gas and water meters which are not powered, battery life is going to be an issue. GPRS and mobile solutions require a lot of power and their battery life may be as short as 5 years whereas Andy claimed because the power requirement of long range radio is lower, the batteries in their meters could last up to 15 years, thereby reducing service calls to replace depleted batteries.

Listening to Andy, you could be forgiven for wondering why any utility would go with a communications protocol other than long-range radio – so can anyone enlighten me – what is the best communications protocol for Smart Grids?

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Can Arqiva provide the Smart Grid communications infrastructure for Britain?

Communications Mast

Photo credit Lee Jordan

We had a really interesting Smart Grid related conversation with a company called Arqiva the other day.

I hadn’t heard of Arqiva before but they are quite a significant player in communications infrastructure. They own or have exclusive marketing rights for 16,000 communication masts in UK – what they call vertical real-estate! They also own, operate and maintain all of the UK’s terrestrial television network as a regulated monopoly. And they are responsible for rolling out the switch-over from analog to digital broadcasting for the country.

If that weren’t enough Arqiva are Europe’s largest provider of satellite linkage services!

All very well I hear you say, but what does this have to do with Smart Grids?

Well, Arqiva have a fascinating proposition. They are expecting Ofgem (the regulator for the electricity and gas markets in Great Britain) to announce some kind of central procurement for a Great Britain-wide network and if that occurs, Arqiva would be in a very strong position to bid for it.

They have dedicated UHF spectrum (412 MHz) and a nationwide mast footprint already capable of reaching 100% of the homes in the country. A significant advantage of the dedicated long range spectrum (apart from the lack of contention) is that it will have no problem reaching into houses where meters can be located under stairs or in basements, for example. Cellular networks don’t have the same luxury and are more plagued with health concerns around the transmissions from their masts.

Having a single provider of the communications infrastructure for smart grids is a very appealing proposition – especially if it has regulated returns and contestable pricing which you would expect in a system like this.

Arqiva announced [PDF] just the other day that nPower is joining Arqiva’s Smart Grid proof-of-concept network which covers 80 square kilometres around Reading. nPower are a significant utility with around 6.5 million residential gas and electricity accounts throughout the UK. This will allow Arqiva to test smart gas as well as smart electricity meters and they ultimately want to include smart water meters in their network as well.

Arqiva say they have thought about security as well (which is just as well seeing as a single communications network for electricity, gas and water makes for an extremely attractive strategic target). They are using encrypted communications over licensed spectrum, and are operating a closed system so that should help but security is a constant battle so it is one they will need to stay on top of.

If Arqiva manages to roll this out successfully in the UK, this will leave them in a very strong position to reproduce this model in other countries.

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