Smart Grid Specialist Echelon To Partners: We Need You

Echelon took the wraps off two new product lines Wednesday, both of which will help meet the smart grid needs of tomorrow through more intelligent management of how electricity is produced, consumed and distributed, the smart grid specialist said.

Echelon sells metering devices and other energy infrastructure and utility technologies, in part through the channel. Its executives see a need for creating a partner ecosystem that will be responsible for everything from software development on Echelon's platform to meeting services and business intelligence opportunities that the so-called smart grid infrastructure requires.

Ron Sege, formerly of 3Com and Echelon's recently-appointed president and CEO, said Wednesday that smarter energy technologies are about collecting information and processing information to make decisions "as close to the end device as possible."

Many current energy market technologies -- which often measure and manage energy usage but don't necessarily troubleshoot problems -- will be insufficient for the future, Echelon argues. It's not enough for smart grid technologies to merely identify problems, Sege explained, especially with microgrid power systems and energy-sappers like electric cars becoming more common and putting more strain on energy resources.

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"In the smart grid, latency counts and reliability counts, so distributing intelligence -- or what we call intelligent distribution control -- will be critical to this next phase of the smart grid build-out," said Sege, speaking at an Echelon conference in New York Wednesday. "That's what Echelon does."

Sege cited a number of industry statistics about energy consumption, including that outages have increased by 124 percent in the U.S. over the last two decades, and that developing countries, which accounted for 27 percent of the global electricity demand in 2000, will account for 43 percent by 2030.

According to the Department of Energy, Sege said, electrical outrages cost U.S. consumers $150 billion a year.

Among the new releases from Echelon are the Echelon Control System (ECoS), an open software platform intended for use in intelligent distributed control of the smart grid, and a family of hardware products called the Edge Control Node (ECN) 7000 series that works with wireless transceivers and antennas, and also provides connectivity to various power line networked devices and consumer and commercial utility devices.

The ECN devices, using the ECoS platform, in theory extend intelligent control features such as the ability to monitor line signal strength out to the edge of the grid. That will result in an even "smarter" energy infrastructure that will make for better redundancy and security, cleaner and more efficient energy use, more reliable quality-of-service and fewer electrical problems overall, not to mention lowered op-ex and cap-ex for utility companies, Sege explained.

Next: How The Channel Fits In

Among the attendees at Wednesday's event were representatives from Duke Energy, which is Echelon's first ECoS and ECN customer and has placed a $14.5 million order for the technology.

Echelon and Duke Energy have a long-term supply agreement dating back to August 2009, and deliveries of ECN 7000 products will be completed by mid-2013, the companies said. Duke Energy serves about 4 million customers in the Carolinas, Indiana, Ohio and Kentucky.

Mark Wyatt, vice president of smart energy systems for Duke Energy, said energy management has to be "back-of-mind" intelligence that doesn't just rely on whether consumers can remember to use energy more responsibly.

One example of that, he said, would be to give consumers the ability to set their homes in an "away mode" for energy consumption -- similar to the way they set a security system when they leave the house. Creating that, Wyatt said, would for most households save the equivalent of one month's energy usage.

Building the Echelon ecosystem will rely on partners, including the utilities division of Oracle, and Telvent, a Seville, Spain-based smart grid integrator. A number of other IT integrators, consultancies and energy specialists, including Accenture, BadgerMeter, Capgemini, Convergys, Coulomb, eMeter and S&C Electric Company, have also signed on to partner with Echelon.

Echelon does sell metering infrastructure products under its NES System brand through resellers, and also carries LonWorks Infrastructure, a standards-based (ISO/IEC, ANSI, IP) line of microprocessors, smart transceivers and other network control tools, sold primarily to OEMs.

The ECoS and ECN lines will be part of those overall channel plays, but the best way way to think about it, said Michael Anderson, Echelon senior vice president, smart grid sales and go-to-market utilities strategies, is in terms of domain expertise.

"It would be misleading to tell you that you can walk out of the telecom room and walk into the utility room and just flip a switch," said Anderson in an interview with CRN Wednesday. "There is a learning curve. But our philosophy, and my advice to people who want to get involved, is that there is a tremendous amount of hardware and software involved here. There are IT providers that have been doing this for years, so look at what are the competencies [you] can bring and how do [you] pair up with somebody."

Software development, network management, business intelligence and logistics are among the opportunities available to VARs and integrators, he explained, and Echelon will continue to invest in training and support for partners.

With energy technology industry in a paradigm shift, Echelon's success -- and that of its partners -- will depend on what Anderson called "repeatable" and "100 percent referenceable" customers.

"We're only as good as our last great customer implementation," Anderson said.

Smart grid technologies have emerged as an important technology vertical, as well as a potentially lucrative opportunity for networking and infrastructure solution providers.

There are a number of specialist vendors, like Echelon, as well as several major, channel-centric vendors with eyes on the space, including Oracle, IBM and Cisco.