A Chat with Silver Spring Network’s Eric Dresselhuys

Smart grid is evolving so rapidly that it is hard to catch a glimpse of what’s really going on at a given moment. I gather information by reading lots of articles, blog posts, and tweets, going to conferences, and talking to experts. To many of us, smart grid is smart meters and home network/home energy management (HEM). On the commercial building side, demand and response (D/R) has been mentioned so far.

Recently, GreenTech Media’s David Leeds, who published a report on smart grid (free download here in 2009, mentioned that distribution automation is gaining momentum as the next area of focus in smart grid. Also, Pike Research reported on six application trends (D/R, analytics, EV charging, HEM, DA, and carbon management) in smart grid at the recent Green Net conference. (See my blog post on it here.)

I wanted to find out what the fastest-growing areas are by speaking to a smart grid visionary. Who is the best person to give me that information? I have been to several meetings and conferences and heard Eric Dresselhuys of Silver Spring Networks (SSN) talk. He represents SSN, but he is also a visionary in smart grid. I wanted to hear where smart grid stands and what SSN’s smart grid status is, so I sat down with him for a casual conversation.

Eric Dresselhuys of Silver Spring Networks.

When SSN gained its fame overnight, I used to check their website often, but over time I stopped doing that. Earlier at Green Net, Katie Fehrenbacher, editor of Earth2Tech, GigaOM, introduced Eric in a panel session and mentioned that SSN is a smart grid networking and application company.

First, I wanted to make sure that that was a fair description of SSN. Eric said that the key focus of SSN has not changed: it is focused on providing network platforms. Over time, many more adjectives were added on top of “coms” because they provide networking platforms, including software, firmware, and services to create networking infrastructures that allow utilities to provide their services.

Today SSN has many customers, nationally and internationally, working on large-scale projects with a variety of applications, including metering, demand/response, energy efficiency, distributed generation (on an earlier panel, Eric discussed this from SSN’s perspective), and controlling EVs. These applications are consumer oriented. But for utilities, grid reliability matters a lot. SSN’s utility clients use its platform for distribution automation and consumer engagement. (Eric was a panelist at the SVLG/Stanford smart grid conference on this topic.) Grid reliability is the responsibility of utilities, and it is becoming difficult because the distribution grid is aging and its components, such as 20-year-old transformers, fail more often than before. Even without any changes, the distribution grid has a lot of problems. But on top of those, more loads are expected with distributed generation (DG) and the addition of EVs to the grid. Because of these new developments, managing the distribution grid is expected to become even more complex and difficult.

SSN helps end-to-end connectivity applications and also connects the components in the middle. One such example is microgrids, considered a development for the future but already in place in some basic forms. SSN is working with clients and partners to make these applications and services a reality. In the current smart grid field, we cannot buy a piece and plug it into the grid to implement a new application. An application is implemented by working with multiple players. SSN provides a network platform in that mix.

What about analytics? SSN collects and analyzes data to obtain information on power quality and device status from 150 billion data sets. Eric gave me that number from memory, so it may not be accurate, but the point is that there is a huge amount of data produced by smart grid alone. Remember Big Data?

SSN deals with these large data sets to provide information on basic networking, such as connectivity and connection reliability, and it is now adding analysis of metering data and device status information (predicting when a device might fail). Another example is temperature sensing to tell which part of the wiring may go bad. High temperature pinpoints the location of failure with high probability. Analytics is an area that will grow very big and is suitable for many incumbents and startups in Silicon Valley to tackle.

My next question was about their IP (Internet protocol) strategy. Like Cisco, SSN envisions connecting everything with IP. As I have reported in previous posts, many more networking protocols are available and actually in use, especially in the fields of building and industry.

I have talked to several building management systems vendors and building managers. Although the general trend is towards IP for consolidation, especially in the backbone, it is still too early to rip everything out and replace it with IP. When SSN first started preaching IP, it was met with a good dose of skepticism. But now, several years later, many other legacy protocols are working to interface with IP, such as BACnet/IP and ZigBee 2.0 (ZigBee IP).

SSN is working in the building field with a focus on the home. home. (I think he means to say they are working on the home with their purchase of Greenbox, now called CustomerIQ)

What they do is to provide connectivity to BMS. But the BMS area is still dominated by Johnson Controls, Honeywell, Siemens, Schneider that I talked to later in the conference, and system integrators. Pike Research indicated that the building space could be a place to integrate carbon management with ERP and networking players with D/R. However, SSN is not currently in this space. Strategically, this is a good move. Although Cisco with its Mediator is entering this space with some forward-thinking clients like NetApp, the market has not crossed the chasm to make everything IP in the building field yet. Speaking of Cisco, Eric does not think SSN is competing directly with Cisco at this time. Cisco is concentrating on substation automation and building management, an area that SSN has not entered. Eric sees Cisco’s push for IP as very positive for SSN’s IP-centric view.

Overall, SSN provides a network platform from substations to consumers, a.k.a power distribution networks, by being a conductor in smart grid applications mixes on that platform. As I had imagined, Eric is a visionary and knows the smart grid market very well. He knows SSN’s core strength and does not enter the market when it is not ready for him. When SSN considers entering the commercial building market, it will truly be time for legacy protocols to be consolidated into IP. I will keep watching SSN’s progress in this and other areas.

Zen Kishimoto

About Zen Kishimoto

Seasoned research and technology executive with various functional expertise, including roles in analyst, writer, CTO, VP Engineering, general management, sales, and marketing in diverse high-tech and cleantech industry segments, including software, mobile embedded systems, Web technologies, and networking. Current focus and expertise are in the area of the IT application to energy, such as smart grid, green IT, building/data center energy efficiency, and cloud computing.

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