One of them, Pacific Gas & Electric, spends about $10 million a year on proprietary wired sensors in its transmission and distribution network. The sensors can cost tens of thousands of dollars each and require manual intervention, said Kevin Dasso, a senior director of electric strategy in PG&E's transmission and distribution group. The utility aims to move to wireless sensors that are much lower in cost and ride Internet Protocol networks, Dasso said. It has also proposed a plan to regulators to spend more than $1 billion over six years on a network of control systems to respond automatically to problems on its distribution system. And PG&E is already well along in a separate program to install solid-state relays in its transmission substations.
Vendors from the energy and IT sectors are lining up for a slice of such business. Startup Silver Springs Networks (Redwood City, Calif.) claims it has deployed hundreds of thousands of its wireless Internet Protocol nodes to date, mainly for smart metering applications. It uses a 902- to 928-MHz ISM band network card to deliver 100-kbit/second point-to-point links on mesh networks that in some cases can span more than a mile in a single hop.
Competitor Echelon Corp. (San Jose, Calif.) claims it has installed as many as 30 million of its wired LonWorks nodes for smart metering; the vast majority are data concentrators for a single deployment in Italy. The company participates in as many as 90 pilot projects.
"Utilities are constrained because they need to pilot any new technologies and go through a public tender process before they can issue a bid," said Steve Nguyen, director of corporate marketing at Echelon. "A lot of utilities don't have the funding to do proper investigation and piloting," a problem the U.S. stimulus package may address, he said.
See also: Switching on the smart grid