Utilities + Telecom = The Really Smart Grid

Last November 2010 I wrote about whether utilities and telecom operators where friends or foes. I opined that there are more things going for them to be friends than otherwise. Recently there was an article in Greentech Media titled The Merger of Telecom and Utilities: Is It the Future? According to the article,

“It’s already happening in Australia, where one utility, ActewAGL, is bundling up to seven services to save customers money. It’s also starting to happen here in the U.S.

Central Indiana Power, a small co-operative in the suburbs of Indianapolis, has merged with a local telecom, Hancock, to offer electricity, phone, broadband and home security services through one company now called NineStar Connect.”

Will utilities of the future sell TV, phone, mobile, electricity and gas? Is this possible given the incredibly slow to move behemoth monopolies that exist in the utility industry today? Does it make sense from a consumer perspective? Is it taking a current monopoly and making it the multi-headed Hydra of a monopoly where they control so much? Or it is just the right recipe to promote competition whereby the distribution infrastructure is managed in a wholesale model whereby multiple Mega Service Providers offer the quintuple play of services competing within a market against other Mega Service Providers?

Another Greentech Media article titled Who Are The Utilities of the Future? makes a few good points, one specifically that can provide the catalyst to these new futuristic utilities.

“The general public perception of utilities is that they are staid, almost immobile, organizations that act more like government agencies than businesses. The power and water business, however, is currently undergoing perhaps the largest transformation it has seen since the dawn of utility commissions.

Consumers and corporations have begun to install solar panels and fuel cells that effectively let them ease off the grid. Native American tribes, real estate investment trusts and others sell power generated from real estate — desert acreage, industrial rooftops, landfills — that once had little market value. Soon, microgrids could lead to autonomous communities. Power to charge your electric car will come from a parking lot.”

Microgrids may very well spawn the age of these new Mega Service Providers where there is more of a market driven approach than just simple peak load management according to demand-response. Microgrids will generate and store energy, as well as consume it. But they may also communicate intelligently among themselves to a services broker or “green exchange” that will facilitate the trading of knowledge and possibly the energy itself of when certain loads will be required as well as when certain lulls will be available. As the Internet did for social networking, it may also do for the ultimate grassroots effort of all mankind, to disrupt the current utility model and create totally new business and operating models.

Is this the future? How else might it look? Do you agree or disagree?

What’s Next on the Grid (Healthcare Edition)

There is a lot of activity in the Smart Grid space these days, particularly in the buildout of the infrastructure necessary to get going on at the least the initial vision of the Smart Grid whereby utilities will monitor home and commercial building energy consumption to optimize the generation and distribution of energy during times less stressful on the same generation sources, distribution networks, and ultimately pocketbooks of those purchasing the energy. However what is beyond the infrastructure and what are truly new services that can overlay or be completely new experiences for the end users and monetization opportunities for the service providers, which may include the utilities but not be exclusive to them? I argue that these new services need to be thought of in terms of the target “consumers” of the services and new lifestyle attributes created from these services. As the first in the What’s Next on the Grid series, this article will discuss at a high level how Healthcare is one of these many new services and lifestyle impacts that the Smart Grid++ will create.

What do Healthcare and the Smart Grid have in relation to each other, apart from the fact that the same end consumers of the Smart Grid services are all human beings (Ed.: machine-to-machine applications on the grid notwithstanding) that need to lead healthy lives? At first glance, pretty much nothing in common. However let’s look at a few characteristics that the two have in common.

  1. Both use wireless technologies. In Smart Grid, AMI is implementing Zigbee and Home Area Networks (HANs) are implementing several wireless technologies such as WiFi. In Healthcare, hospitals and clinics are implementing WiFi for voice and data communications (and other proprietary wireless) and the Healthcare vertical has been an early adopter of wireless technologies due to complexities with running wired infrastructure for connected devices.
  2. Both are connecting their devices. Meters, appliances, thermostats and TVs connected to a network is the first step to monitoring their energy consumption. Similarly connecting X-ray machines, home dialysis machines, medicine carts, patient tracking badges and in-home heartrate monitors are the first steps to creating anywhere, anytime patient monitoring.
  3. Both see mobile devices and technologies as game changers. Whether it is iPhones, iPads or other mobile Internet devices and displays, remote and on-the-go manageability is an absolute need for doctors, nurses, building managers, or utility operations personnel. We’re seeing the traditional closed NOC center become more and more distributed as mobile becomes pervasive.
  4. Both are seeing significant innovations in the cloud. This dimension is more of a When and not If it will happen. But also How it will happen. Scalability and reliability of the cloud has been proven time and time again. However both Smart Grid and Healthcare have requirements for privacy of consumer/patient information, massive data management of petabytes and exabytes of detailed data (real-time energy consumption data from dozens of devices in a home to large MRI and other diagnostic imaging data from radiology departments), and strict regulations of who can access this data.

Rather than looking at each of the above dimensions individually and in a vacuum of minutiae, let’s look at them from a couple of fictional usage scenarios centered around how they benefit the lifestyles and livelihoods of the users. Fictional only in that I’ve not heard they’ve been actually implemented but technically very feasible.

I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up

Babyboomers are the largest new segment of the population entering their “golden years” but with both financial capability and a desire for wellness not just visit their doctors when they catch a bug. Many are staying proactively healthy with exercise, activities and good dietary habits. Imagine their stationary bicycles and Stairmasters connected to a converged wellness management system that also gives them suggestions or implements automated rules that reduce their energy spending. The stationary bicycles send their physicians and dietitians real-time and historical information of how they’re exercise program is going, their heartrate range from at-rest to peak performance, weight, etc. If the users also included some anaerobic cardio such as swimming in their programs, wouldn’t it be nice if the pool heater and pool pump energy consumption were activated according to the people’s schedules? If there were changes to the schedule, they can enter the new schedule via their mobile smartphones or simply via their locations the schedules can be altered.

Code Blue in Room 305

There are many critical systems within a hospital environment such as the intensive care wards, radiology departments, patient and asset tracking systems, access to medical records and so forth. Some, but not all, hospitals have backup generators to weather through power outages but the rise of renewables such as solar and other alternatives could make the hospital environment its own micro-grid with these various power source subsystems that can be tapped and utilized in optimal times and conditions. However a holistic view of all the critical systems WITH the available alternate power subsystems implemented in a Critical Intelligence and Rules service ensures that all of the patient care and hospital management systems are available at all times in the most efficient manner. The MRI machines draw a lot of power so they wouldn’t necessarily be switched to a battery bank while the 900 MHz Asset HAN can easily operate on duty cycles conducive to drawing from the batteries during peak tariff periods.

Check On Grandma

Many of us having aging parents and grandparents who we’d like to be able to check on from time to time, given our very active lives with traveling, taking care of kids or running companies. In comes the mobile phone as the portal to many of these personal facets of our lives. I can see to ensure the temperature is comfy for Grandma in Miami because there happens to be a major cold chill sweeping through the area and she doesn’t know how to work that new programmable thermostat the utility installed. At the same time I can see that she’s up to date on her heart medication because she’s been taking the pills at the same times every day (RFID on the pill container with an integrated alert) and her in-home heart check monitor is giving me a green indication stating all is well. I’m on vacation in Europe with the kids so I sleep much better knowing this. We’ll give her a call tomorrow after the gondola ride.

Summary

There are no lack of opportunities where the Smart Grid is more than just a grid for distributing energy at the right time of day. The ultimate uptake by consumers will be in the many layered ways they perceive these services touch and improve their lives. Some parts will be slower than others but beyond the infrastructure, the services need to be developed in a very user and customer-centric manner if they are to make good business sense as well.