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September 21, 2009

Smart Grid Feature: Connected Homes, Energy Management and Why ZigBee is Considered Harmful (Part 2)



Since the first installment of this article, I’ve received great feedback and questions from readers, some regarding the relationship to a few important announcements from both Cisco and IBM. As a note, these announcements really strengthen my belief in the future of standards and interoperability for the Smart Grid.
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My prediction is that the immediate need for AMI and other complex Smart Grid communications networks will dictate the use of already existing, open and well understood communications standards. I also believe that, at the end of the day, de facto standards will emerge for new Smart Grid applications. These will be driven by established IT players such as Cisco and IBM (News - Alert), together with cutting-edge R&D institutions such as the U.S. Department of Energy’s research labs and upcoming Grid solutions providers such as GridPoint and Trilliant (News - Alert). The committees will rather end up with the task of refining these de-facto standards long after the Smart Grid is operational.
 
Something to note about 6LoWPAN is that it’s just IPv6, what we are really talking about is bringing the power of IPv6 to home energy management. Now let’s return to where I left off from the last installment, and list why 6LoWPAN or IPv6 is a much better choice than ZigBee for home area networks.
 
  1. We gain the freedom of moving to a different communications technology in the future. Just because 802.15.4 is the right technology today doesn’t mean it will be the right one 10 or even 5 years from now. To reinforce this perspective it’s worth mentioning that we actually know of wireless technologies coming up in R&D labs which are 100 times more power efficient, smaller and cheaper than 802.15.4. By choosing a tightly coupled standard like ZigBee, refactoring applications will be orders of magnitude harder and this will be a barrier to future innovation. 
 
  1. Just because one technology is right for a particular environment, it doesn’t mean that it will be right for a different environment. For example, consider a factory with energy management requirements that necessitate wired sensors and actuators as well as more bandwidth than 802.15.4 can provide; we can still build a common energy management framework on top of IP that unifies and satisfies both the home and this industrial example. Take a look at the ANSI C12.22 standard for a step in the right direction; mapping the proper semantics of general energy management to the case of the home is more important than standardizing around one wireless technology. Even for different homes in different geographies, giving utilities the option of adopting the physical network that suits the environment.
 
  1. We can leverage the immense R&D, know-how and solutions available from the ICT industry. Take security as an example. ZigBee has only a very basic security model. In fact, it mostly delegates this to the very basic security built into the 802.15.4. On the other hand, a standardized IPv6 energy management system can leverage the same security technologies that mobile phone networks and online banking use (to the degree that device constraints allow).
 
  1. Another reason is that by abstracting energy management and unifying under IP, we make it much easier to be part of the Connected Home vision. Granted, even with the right technology in place, the main challenge is political. It will really come down to the question of will we keep home energy management a closed application that only utilities can offer or will we open up the HANs to third party service providers and ultimately consumers. In this case, interfacing with rest of the home’s communications networks will allow things like using various displays in your house for viewing energy usage data, integrating alerts with unified communications and easier development of complex rules such as your health care monitoring provider over-riding Demand Response policies for the devices it controls. 
 
These are just a few reasons among dozens I can think of why adopting 6LoWPAN is the right way to go. If you are interested in learning more on the benefits of 6LoWPAN and IPv6 in the home, feel free to contact me.
 
Before signing off and since we are on the topic of home energy management, I would like to share with you that I had the pleasure of speaking with Troy Batterberry, General Manager of Microsoft (News - Alert) Hohm, about a month ago and we discussed where he sees the business of home energy management heading. I’ll post a recording of parts of the conversation and a summary of the talk early next week. 

Shidan Gouran is co-founder of Intelligent Communications Partners (ICP), a strategic advisory consultancy focused on the emerging Smart Grid opportunity. To read more of his Smart Grid articles, please visit his columnist page.
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