Smart meters, which are meters that are hooked up to a network so that they can deliver information about current usage in a timely manner, are rapidly becoming ubiquitous.  For example the nation’s largest utility, PG&E, has so far has installed smart meters for 360,000 electricity and 1.75 million natural gas customers.  By the end of 2011, PG&E plans to have smart meters installed in all 5.2 million electricity and 4.8 million natural gas meters on its gas and electric networks.

What Kinds of Software is Needed By Smart Meters?

Smart meters will enable real time energy decisions in response to current conditions. They form a critical cornerstone of the smart grid. In fact, in many ways, they are the “smart” in the smart grid. This opens up a whole slew of new opportunities for smart software developers and smart entrepreneurs [no pun intended] to build the software applications and services to support and to add value to these new smart networked grids.

Want to read more on the smart grid check out “ The Green Economy Will Need a Smart Grid…and Building it will be Big Business, which examines the critical glue of our nations future energy economy from a broader perspective.

This software, and these networked exposed services, will include embedded controllers ranging from network nodes inside utility operated sub-stations, to those embedded in large institutional and industrial consumers internal energy management systems.   Eventually, as smart appliances are manufactured  controllers will be used for all manner of appliances, including: clothes washers and dryers, water heaters, home furnaces,  refrigerators and air conditioners.    Sophisticated user interfaces will also be needed that securely enable consumers to remotely administer their energy usage.  They will also be used to configure their smart appliances in their home systems.  This model can be applied on a different scale to  factories, offices, schools, hospitals etc.).  Furthermore,  all of these networked energy producing, storage and consuming sub-systems and the various smart nodes will need an integrated security infrastructure to prevent the energy networks from being vulnerable to malicious hackers.

All manner of new applications and value added products will find rich niches in this new market.  A good example would be sophisticated profiling software that can deliver granular assessments of what the best opportunities for saving energy exist within some home (or institutional) network.    This would be based on a baseline of data gathered from the networked energy appliances and the usage patterns in the larger context of wider grid fluctuations of supply and demand. Firewalls for these inner networks of smart appliances will needed to be built in order to protect access to sensitive information, and to safeguard networked appliances from becoming controlled in an unauthorized manner.

Software for Energy Suppliers and Larger Institutional Consumers

For larger institutional users, there may be tie-ins with carbon accounting systems (and software). For example, a large institution that implements a smart energy usage plan may be able to significantly reduced its carbon footprint, and be able to record this onto its carbon balance sheet – but only if it can clearly account for these savings and show how its smart energy plan reduced peak grid demand. On the supply side, real time price spot market conditions can deliver signals for when to release supplies onto the grid. (This is assuming that these spot markets are opened up to small suppliers.) For example, various widely distributed energy storage technologies, such as flywheel, super-conducting capacitors, batteries, compressed air etc. seem a natural pair to intermittent energy harvesting systems. These storage nodes will be able to respond to real-time spot conditions to sell onto the peak and build up stores in the demand troughs – thus evening out peaks and valleys of supply and demand.

Brand New Kinds of Software and Services are Likely Waiting to be Discovered

Many as yet unforeseen software applications and new services will be discovered as intelligence becomes pervasive in the grids and on the consuming appliances. Various sub-networks (such as a home energy network) and these applications will pop up in surprising new places. Smart energy applications for Smartphone’s, enabling users to control while on the go — and why not! As a software developer, I am excited by the huge potential I can see in these new networks that couple energy flows with the flow of information. I wonder what others are thinking along these lines. Where do you see this leading? What new products and services do you think will become enabled by this brand new kind of coupled-network that is just now being born into our world?

© 2009, Chris de Morsella. All rights reserved. Do not republish.

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Author: Chris de Morsella (146 Articles)

After a decade performing as a lead guitarist for rock bands, Chris de Morsella decided to return to the career his uncle mentored him in as a youth....Software Engineering. Since that time he has thrown himself into his work. He has designed a compound document publishing architecture for regulatory submissions capable of handling very large multi-document FDA regulatory drug approval submissions, for Liquent, a division of Thompson Publishing. At the Associated Press, Chris worked with senior editors at facilities around the world, to develop a solution for replacing existing editorial systems with an integrated international content management solution. He lead the design effort at Microsoft for a help system for mobile devices designed to provide contextual help for users. Chris also helped to develop the web assisted installer for LifeCam2.0, the software for Microsoft’s web cam and developed late breaking features for the product He also served with the Rhapsody client team to redesign and build a major new release of Real Networks Rhapsody client product. His most recent assignment has been Working with the Outlook Mobile Time Management team for the next release of Outlook Mobile for the SmartPhone. Chris' interests are in green building and architecture, smart grid, the cloud, geo-thermal energy, solar energy, smart growth, organic farming and permaculture. Follow Chris on Twitter.

  • victor yodaiken

    Unfortunate that our embedded software development remains so primitive.

    Smart grid requires a level of reliability that is a lot higher than industry norm.

    • chris

      You raise a good point, most embedded software has never been faced with the unique challenges posed by massively networked connectivity on open and untrusted systems. The culture that pervades embedded software development has a lot to learn from other areas within the software discipline that have been dealing with how to keep the networked stack secure.

      What types of disciplines and development tools do you feel are needed in order to raise the security quality of embedded software?

  • Victor Yodaiken

    @chris – There are two areas that seem key to me.

    Proper abstraction for writing control applications so that there is not such a huge gap between the way that domain expert engineers think about problems and they way they have to think about software that solves the problems.
    Super efficient secure network stack down to app level so that it is actually practical for use on low end processors

    Victor Yodaiken’s last blog post..Venture capital, short term, and India

    • chris

      Both areas you mention could really benefit from the adoption of open standards. There should be clear protocols and API layers that both the embedded and the application developers can write to. Fortunately even low end processors are becoming quite powerful these days and I believe the network stack can be made secure at not too great a cost. I am encouraged to note that there seems to be a widesread adoption of the the ZigBee smart energy profile, which uses certificate based security on top of 128 AES encryption, which is a pretty good level of encryption.

      Much of what both the embedded, stack and application developers need to do is write secure code that prevents buffer over run attacks by using length defined buffers. Secure methods exist for all of the CRT functions that are the source of so many buffer over run exploits.

      Also at the network level security protocols and network management practices and procedures that are being put into place will serve to limit the scope of what a compromised device can affect.