Future Opportunities in the Smart Grid-Smart Building Nexus

Last week brought news that helps clarify just how muddy the line is becoming between utility-facing, grid-based technologies and building technologies that help carry out the grid’s commands. Big corporate integrators are buying startups that fill in the technology gaps in this smart grid-smart building nexus. Where do future opportunities lie?

On Monday, French power giant Alstom announced it was acquiring UISOL, maker of the leading demand response software platform among big U.S. grid operators. Then, on Tuesday, IBM announced plans to buy Tririga, which makes software that tracks energy use, carbon emissions and sustainability metrics across building portfolios of many Fortune 500 firms.

As grids and buildings get more closely interconnected, they’ll offer new ways to get utilities and their customers in sync with their energy needs — at first as a technical accomplishment, and later as a revenue-generating line of business. The Alstom-UISOL and IBM-Tririga deals provide two examples worth taking a look at:

Alstom buys UISOL. Alstom’s purchase of UISOL puts it on the ground floor of a key emerging standard for the smart grid space. That’s OpenADR, the Berkeley Labs-developed protocol for utilities to communicate demand response and price commands to their customers, which are mainly, industrial and commercial end users with lots of different equipment they can power down to shave peak loads.

UISOL’s main commercial product, DRBizNet, is a software platform now used by PJM, Midwest ISO and California ISO to control demand response at the grid operator level. That is, it connects both utility demand response systems and those of aggregators like EnerNOC and Comverge into an interstate-spanning demand response management network.

But UISOL also told me last autumn that it has been working on a demand response automation server (DRAS) that can translate OpenADR signals to building control systems. Alstom, for its part, could add UISOL’s demand response capabilities to its suite of grid management tools, as well as new tools to manage distributed energy resources like rooftop solar panels in partnership with players like Microsoft. The end goal is a “virtual power plant” — building air conditioners, lighting controls, solar panels, fuel cells, etc., all connected to the grid at large — the very definition of an end-to-end smart grid.

IBM buys Tririga. Where Alstom is a hands-on power grid company, IBM is an integrator of technologies, with software and services to manage smart meter networks, link building automation platforms from different vendors and build cloud-based, city-wide sensor networks as part of its smarter planet initiative. Tririga’s TREES software platform, on the other hand, crunches whatever data is available to calculate efficiency and sustainability characteristics for buildings. It is aimed at accurately assessing current energy efficiency — and what different types of retrofits can deliver which returns on investment — on a per-square-foot basis.

Better data could yield better accuracy out of such a system. Tririga’s marketing director John Clark told me last year that about 60 percent of its clients — a list that includes Nokia, GE, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and The Gap — use data collected from bill payment systems or building energy management systems, with many getting up to 15-minute data feeds. That’s the kind of real-time, real-world data that IBM specializes in and can expand upon as it brings Tririga into its broader smart buildings portfolio.

Smart Tech, Meet Prices. More importantly, Tririga is built to emphasize dollars and cents as a key statistic. Most building automation systems aren’t designed to crunch energy price variables. Linking energy and money is the next step for IBM and every other contender in the smart building space. The same thing goes for the smart grid and demand response field, by the way. Eventually, OpenADR is  meant to deliver energy pricing data to allow buildings to fine-tune their power usage. The same pricing data could be imported into an Alstom-UISOL, grid-centric format, or it could be absorbed and acted upon by a Tririga-IBM, building-side platform that connects with the grid. I wonder where the two will meet next?

Question of the week

Where do the worlds of smart grid and smart buildings overlap?
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