Why has it taken so long for a major smart grid player to take the obvious step of building an app store for utilities? For one thing, the complexities of the electric power industry make it harder to accomplish here than in industries such as telecommunications.
For another, it has been very difficult to get access to the data to construct useful applications. Talk to analytics companies, for instance, and they'll tell you that their biggest challenge is often getting the raw data from the IT department.
To solve that data access problem, Silver Spring Networks built an intervening layer called the SilverLink Sensor Network (SLSN). In essence, it allows applications to do an end run around the back office and talk directly to sensors.
Get direct access to sensor data
The role of SLSN is to make sensors directly accessible. "Today, we take sensor data and stick it in a warehouse," explains Anil Gadre, EVP of Product Management. "The you pull it out hours later to do something. It's very batch oriented. With SLSN, we are moving to real-time and on-demand."
In today's batch mode, we grab data, ship it to the back office, then ship around multiple copies, either to data warehouses and data marts or directly to applications. This creates a time bottleneck. And it also creates storage problems because of the multiple copies.
"Anybody can put data in a bathtub and analyze it later," Gadre continues. "What hasn't been possible until now is complex event analysis in real time."
Thanks to the SLSN layer, applications can link directly to sensors to get the data they need in near real-time and without any intervening steps. SLSN makes sensors discoverable and connectable.
"Smart phones are also sensors," says Gadre. "They can tell you how fast you are moving for instance or report your location. But phone companies don't ship all that sensor data to a single central computer to be portioned out. Instead, you can ping the phone directly."
SLSN introduces the concept of cloud-based "virtual sensors," which first process the data before sending along the results. You subscribe to the virtual sensor, it provides the pre-processed data, then the applications present that data in a useful form.
"Meters measure many things including usage," says Gadre. "Imagine taking a virtual usage sensor, then piping the output into an energy audit sensor, then into a rate sensor or time of use sensor. You can connect sensors like Legos." Applications might use that data for things such as bill analysis, rate plans, or energy-saving tips for customers.
SLSN's capability to virtualize also lets it aggregate sensors. "You could make a sensor that collects the data for an entire apartment building. Or gives you the sum of all the usage of a fast food chain. Or aggregates all of the meters on Highway 101."
Easier programming too
SLSN uses the Web services approach, with APIs for easier programming. Gadre claims apps can be built at "one tenth the cost of writing giant, monolithic applications." Applications simply subscribe to the services they want.
For instance, a voltage sensor might be used for a conservation voltage reduction application. An energy use sensor might be used for rate plan modeling. A load forecast sensor for distribution network planning.
Silver Spring Networks already has a variety of sensors and applications in its library. It expects partners and customers to develop many more in quick order. A formal developer program and SDK will be released later in the year.
SLSN has the potential to be a truly disruptive approach, but its success will be measured by the quantity and quality of the applications. And that requires a base of developers that understand energy and understand utilities. We'll have to wait to see whether that base materializes, either from independent developers or from developers inside utilities.