Is there green in 'misfit' technologies?

Zigbee and other technologies get a second lease on life thanks to efforts to reduce power consumption.

Global warming spells bad news for polar bears, tropical nations and many crops. But it just might give a boost to some less popular networking standards.

Utilities and appliance makers are trying to come up with ways to save energy by reducing household power consumption, and part of the answer may lie in some networking standards, such as Zigbee, and power line-based communications that have so far seen only limited adoption.

Here's the idea: Utilities want to install smart power meters inside homes and office buildings that will be able to control (within limits) air conditioner levels or even shut off power to certain appliances within specified hours. Homeowners would get discounts on their electricity bills, while utilities would get a better handle on power consumption. Potentially, it could even give them the luxury of deferring new power plants.

Enter Zigbee, a low-power, low-bandwidth wireless networking standard introduced in 2004 that lets different consumer electronics devices chat with each other. Linked into a Zigbee network, consumers wouldn't be able to get power to their dryer during agreed-upon peak electricity hours, for instance. In essence, Zigbee would enforce the contract made between utilities and consumers.

Although computer makers haven't warmed up to Zigbee, appliance makers are now experimenting with ways to add Zigbee, said Michael Valocchi, a partner in the Energy and Utilities, Global Business Services unit at IBM. The Zigbee Alliance, which helps promote the spec, is also working with utilities and appliance makers.

"It is almost like fitting in a couple of missing pieces into the puzzle," IBM's Valocchi said. "This puts in some level of certainty with demand response," he said.

CenterPoint Energy, a utility in the Houston area, is running a power line/Zigbee pilot now and will begin to roll it out commercially in 2008.

PHI, an East Coast utility, has started to test networking technologies for smart meters and will begin to roll out networked metering technologies over the coming four years (it won't use broadband over power line but another protocol). IBM is consulting with both utilities on these projects.

Southern California Edison has also kicked off smart meter trials that incorporate Zigbee.

EnerNoc, which sells smart metering services and technologies to utilities, is eyeing different wireless technologies as well.

"Hopefully, Zigbee and some of these other standards will allow us to do lots of things we have wanted to do but couldn't afford economically to do," said Gregg Dixon, senior vice president of sales and marketing at EnerNoc. Nonetheless, he added, "There is a lot of development that needs to be done."

Another company working in this area is China's Miartech, which develops power line communications for utility applications. The company is concentrating on chips with lower-than-broadband data rates.

Some skeptics have pointed out that consumers won't likely put up with utilities controlling their air conditioners or pool heaters. Early experiments, however, show otherwise. EnerNoc and Comverge, another smart metering company, have both seen steady revenue growth over the past several years.

In Europe, the concept is already on a roll, said Valocchi. In Italy, a utility is offering deep discounts on electricity bills to consumers who agree to shut off their electricity for a weekend. It's popular with people who travel a lot or have summer homes, he said.