Using Amazon's cloud to jumpstart the energy data market

Cloud computing platforms, including Amazon EC2, are powering a new market in energy data services.
Written by Mari Silbey, Contributor

There are some technology advances that spawn entire new industries. For all the hype, and all the definitional vagueness, cloud computing is one such advance. From gaming to advertising to medical diagnostics, cloud computing is giving start-ups the access to network infrastructure they need to get off the ground and support a sustainable business. In the process, it's also giving whole markets the opportunity to shift in new directions; markets like the energy industry, and specifically energy data management.

Not only are companies collecting a lot more data on energy supply and consumption today, they're also processing it in new ways to forecast future usage, create alternative energy models, drive efficiencies and more. This processing requires massive computing resources, and it's the reason cloud computing is so valuable for the energy data industry. At issue is not just the ability to allocate computing efforts across a distributed network infrastructure (i.e. the old grid computing), it's also the ability to get on-demand access to distributed computing resources as needed (i.e. the new cloud).

Consider Urjanet, a start-up in Atlanta, Georgia, and its use of Amazon's Elastic Cloud Compute (EC2) service. Urjanet relies on EC2 to power its energy data subscription business. Urjanet tracks data from more than 600 utility sources in order to help organizations reduce utility costs and track carbon outlay. The company doesn't just traffic in big data; it's also created and refined an energy domain model for normalizing data and creating a consistent and manageable view across disparate data sources. That data processing engine sits in the cloud, and without EC2, Urjanet likely wouldn't be able to scale its computing efforts to sustain the platform or to maintain a viable business.

"It would have been a lot more difficult," says Sanjoy Malik, Chairman and CEO of Urjanet. "I think EC2 has changed the dynamic of what you are able to do dramatically."

What Urjanet is doing is important too. Companies that sign on for Urjanet's service get access to everything from energy consumption data to utility rate plans, carbon metrics, and even weather statistics. The data helps customers understand their power usage, which in turn provides guidance on how to adjust utility spend, and how to meet corporate environmental goals.

As a two-year-old company, Urjanet is still effectively in its infancy. Even with the hundreds of data variables it tracks today, the potential scope of Urjanet's business in the future is far greater. With smart grid deployments on the rise, the volume and value of energy data is only going to grow.

And that circles the conversation back to cloud computing and EC2. Urjanet is part of a new wave of companies driving the computing-intensive energy data market. Amazon EC2 customers alone include businesses like Better Generation and Cyclopic Energy, which depend on the cloud computing service to do wind and solar energy modeling. The Department of Energy's (DOE's) OpenEI.org initiative also uses EC2 to offer a platform for facilitating "access to data, models, tools and information that accelerate the transition to clean energy systems."

In short, this is an industry with a number of companies jumping on board, but also one with plenty of room for growth. It's a market that wouldn't have existed in this form without cloud computing support, and one that's likely to have a major financial, policy and environmental impact in the future.

Images courtesy of Alternative Heat on Flickr and Amazon

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