IBM and US electricity provider CenterPoint joined forces this week to form a new coalition dedicated to accelerating the adoption of so called Smart Grid technologies capable of enhancing the reliability and efficiency of electricity networks and informing users how much power they are consuming.
Executives from the two companies said that the new coalition would provide a global forum for energy and technology providers to share knowledge and best practices, promote industry standards and undertake strategic pilot projects. They added that more utility and technology companies from the US, Europe and Asia-Pacific are expected to join the group in the next few months.
"The Intelligent Utility Network will transform the way power is delivered, managed and used," said Guido Bartels, General Manager, IBM Global Energy & Utilities Industry. "As the group grows to include other utility companies and partners, members will have unique opportunities to apply new ways of thinking, new technologies and management strategies."
The idea of a "smart" electricity grid capable of closely monitoring energy flow and usage across an entire network and potentially even providing broadband and power over the same wires has long been a goal of grid operators who see it as an ideal way of improving fault detection, better matching power supply to demand, providing new services to customers and ultimately developing a "self-healing grid".
However, as pressure on energy providers to enhance their green credentials has grown many firms have also realised the potential for intelligent grid technologies to enhance energy efficiency and reduce overall power consumption.
One of the main goals of the new coalition is to develop and encourage adoption of integrated grid monitoring and communication technologies that can be used to show users how much energy they are using and also provide them with real time price signals for the power they are using.
In theory, this would encourage users to not only be more energy savvy, but also avoid using power when prices are highest at times of peak demand, thus reducing both their bills and the pressure on the grid.
This monitoring capability could also provide the foundation for numerous services and technologies designed to reduce consumption. For example, one pilot scheme in Washington State announced last year by IBM, Whirlpool and the U.S. Department of Energy allows households to set how much money they wish to spend each month on energy and then receive notification if they on track to exceed this amount.
Integrating the analytical information with electrical appliances themselves can further enhance energy efficiency, and in the second part of the pilot project Whirlpool has developed a washing machine that powers down elements of its operation when it is notified that the grid is under pressure.
Widespread adoption of smart grid technologies remains years away, but utility providers are increasingly convinced that such networks are feasible and with energy and technology companies apparently willing to co-operate in developing the standards that will be essential to smart grid development the idea of a network that automatically optimises itself to save power no longer seems like a pipe dream.
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