eMeter CEO Gary Bloom: Utilities must digest smart grid data, or drown in it

According to eMeter CEO Gary Bloom, the growth of the smart grid echoes the Internet boom of the 1990s -- and efforts to scale face similar pitfalls as the dot-com era.
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

What happens when you get too smart, too fast?

You'll drown in data, that's what.

The advancement of technology and new policy and corporate initiatives paved the way for the emergence of the smart grid. But how do utilities marry information technology and clean energy?

According to eMeter CEO Gary Bloom, it's with an open software platform.

Bloom says the San Mateo, Calif.-based company's strength is in its customers, whose use its scalable smart grid software to save energy and money.

A veteran of the infotech world and computer scientist at heart, Bloom joined eMeter in March after serving as vice chairman and president of security firm Symantec. Previously, he worked at Veritas and Oracle.

On Tuesday, I spoke with Bloom about the pitfalls utilities can face when scrambling to get "smart" quickly -- and how the growth of the cleantech industry echoes the Internet boom of the 1990s.

SP: It seems a lot of folks in the cleantech industry came from the IT world, including you. What's the attraction?

GB: I wanted to do something different, but not something completely different. I wanted to leverage my past.

We're obviously focused on the software side of this. This is another shift where technology is being applied to a very old, very traditional problem in a new and innovative way.

If you think about the power grid, it hasn't changed in 40 or 50 years. It has not leveraged innovation as of yet.

The question is, is there value in that information? We think there's phenomenal value in it.

It allows for the first time to have some intelligence come into a system where there really isn't any intelligence at all.

SP: Which is where eMeter comes in.

GB: eMeter's solution takes a vast amount of data and allows [utilities] to manage it and reduce consumption as well.

Fore example, we have a very successful implementation at a company called Toronto Hydro, which uses several pricing tiers.

SP: Speaking of which, why so many tiers in Canada? Why not in the U.S.?

GB: Canada was a little ahead of the curve in being innovative when thinking about pricing. There's a lot of intelligence you can build into your price models.

It's just like when companies took awhile with the Internet to figure out how to manage and price their products differently.

Plus, there is very progressive policy in Ontario. California and Texas are progressive, too.

I think policy is helping us in every respect. In almost every part of the world, a move to a smart grid is being mandated.

SP: So policy aside, how do you grow the smart grid?

GB: There's a massive amount of data coming in, and the question is what will utilities do with all this information.

We have 24 million meters under management with our software. There are utilities that take this information and drown in it.

We're essentially the central nervous system for the smart grid.

SP: Some say the smart grid is where the Internet was 15 years ago.

GB: With the growth of the Internet, traditional companies like Sears, Roebuck and Co. and Blockbuster lost out to Amazon and Netflix.

If you look across the industry, the new curve of technology is a lot like the Internet. You saw a few huge successes and many failures.

The utility industry is going through that same curve. Some are going to do it right with a fresh, strategic approach, and others will try to take a quick 'n' dirty approach, and they'll roll over and die in production.

Utilities have to take advantage of the new curve. They're going to have to get serious and put a real software infrastructure in place.

This is a very traditional enterprise software problem. Utilities are going from one read of a meter per month to meters being read every 15 minutes or less. It's a massive amount of data. Are you going to drown in it, or make it a business asset?

The software has to scale. It has to handle millions of meters, not tens of meters. It has to be a platform approach. It has to integrate.

With eMeter, we have an open platform. On the application side, we don't care whether its SAP or Oracle or whatever application.

SP: What are you seeing out in the field?

GB: The number one thing we're seeing is companies that start with pilots and using lightweight solutions, then scaling to production and dying. It's inadequate at scale. It doesn't give enough information. They're just getting left behind.

Unlike the Internet era, failure is not an option for a utility company. Even those that struggle and have a trainwreck on their hands have to figure out a problem.

There is a difference from the Internet era, though: utility companies don't compete with other utility companies. It's different in that way from Blockbuster and Sears Roebuck.

You know, any account that we've ever lost is an opportunity, not a loss. Every company -- when they scale -- will come back to us. They are coming back into the roost.

There's value in data. We can do all sorts of things with it.

SP: How do you convince the energy industry to cede control to all you infotech guys?

GB: When you talk to utility companies, and you enlighten them with the viewpoint that what they're doing is not all that new than the past, then they think, "Maybe they're right."

We're a pure play software company. So we're interested in giving business value back to the consumers and to the utilities.

This industry, for the first time in perhaps 40 or 50 years, has information that they never had before.

I think it's going to be a pure play platform play, like Veritas in the standards market. We have an opportunity to be a standard when utilities carry out the smart grid.

Utility companies have a lot of home-built software. We're really open. We don't care which meter or which network, just access to the data.

We're also hardware agnostic from the meter and networking side. We have to integrate with multiple applications.

SP: What's been the most surprising since you entered this sector?

GB: Utilities already share information. They freely share best practices. That's unique for me. I've never been an environment where all our customers are willing to share their secrets.

In the utility space, they just want to be smart.

To some extent, wireless networks had to evolve to what the utilities were doing. What we're trying to do is offer them a very smart choice that will.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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