What Silver Spring’s IPO means for the smart-grid landscape

Last week’s launch of Silver Spring Networks’ long-awaited IPO is a big deal for the smart-grid industry. The company’s early public performance could be considered a gauge of the sector’s health as it emerges from a stimulus-backed growth spurt into an uncertain future. And in the longer run, Silver Spring’s success or failure will be closely tied to its plans to build a smart-grid application-delivery platform from its smart-meter networking base — a challenge many utilities face in integrating smart-meter deployments into their smart-grid offerings.

The company, whose networking technology is inside 8 million deployed connected devices and another 9 million under contract, has benefited from the $4 billion U.S. federal smart-grid stimulus. Its S-1 reports $422.2 million in deferred revenues, compared with 2010 revenues of $70.22 million, with much future revenue tied up in stimulus-funded projects. But that stimulus is coming to an end, and last week’s federal action plan on demand response (PDF) said the industry shouldn’t expect any more federal funds beyond existing stimuli. Likewise, the Obama administration’s smart-grid initiative, launched last month, contained little new funding beyond $250 million for rural grid projects.

For Silver Spring, that means new growth must come either from outside the U.S. — something that has begun to happen in Australia and that could happen in markets such as South America — or by adding new businesses to its existing smart-metering deployments. How to tackle that challenge is an important question, not just for Silver Spring but also for competing startups such as Trilliant, SmartSynch, Tantalus and Tropos Networks, not to mention giants like Itron and Landis+Gyr.

Home energy management could be one route. Silver Spring has home-energy and demand-response platforms, and pilots show that it works to drive down energy use. But home energy management remains a very uncertain market, as the withdrawal of Google and Microsoft from the field indicates. A June survey by Black & Veatch (PDF) found lack of customer engagement the biggest barrier to utilities’ justifying investments in customer-facing smart-grid deployments. Silver Spring might have to wait awhile for its utility partners to start spending on home energy management. Even then, utilities may choose another HEM provider to run over Silver Spring’s networks.

Silver Spring could also tackle the utility side of the smart grid. Corporate smart-grid M&A activity has been booming, and most of it has been aimed at utility-centric software and hardware systems. Silver Spring has distribution grid systems, and it is testing them with utility AEP in Ohio. But it will be competing against some huge multinationals like ABB, GE, Siemens and Alstom for that business.

In the long run, Silver Spring wants to build a host of applications — plug-in car management, demand-response controls and the like — on the foundation of its smart-grid networking platform. Whether utilities will choose Silver Spring’s in-house systems or pick other companies in those fields to run over Silver Spring’s networks may decide whether the company’s growth potential is limited to making smart-meter networking cards or whether it will expand to become a services provider for the grid — a move it will want to make to take part in the broader transformation of power grids to come.

In an interesting way, U.S. utilities at large face a similar challenge. They invested at least $2 billion last year into more than 12.8 million smart-meter deployments and are expected to invest a little bit more this year and next. This investment is with the promise of using the smart meters not just as digital cash registers but also as grid-management devices and gateways to new forms of customer interaction. Maybe Silver Spring can be the smart-grid champion to get the ball rolling. If utilities can’t deliver the full range of services and savings they’ve promised from their smart meters, however, regulators and customers might start to believe the entire smart grid is a waste of money, spelling disaster for everyone involved, Silver Spring included.

Question of the week

How will Silver Spring Networks’ IPO gauge the market’s interest in the smart-grid sector writ large?
Relevant analyst in home energy management
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