By Jeff St. John
Smart washer-dryers, smart streetlights, smart solar cities. Think of them as presents under the smart grid Christmas tree.
While Tuesday's big smart grid news was Silver Spring Networks' raising $100 million, a few other smart grid-related announcements were making the rounds as well.
The first came from General Electric (NYSE:GE), which this week outlined in more detail its plans to build millions of "smart" appliances, capable of measuring how much energy they're using and powering down in respond to customer or utility commands.
GE announced it has set a 2012 date to roll out its first "smart" clothes washers and dryers, which it will build in Louisville, Ken. – the same city where it first tested out its appliances' ability to respond to utility commands in a pilot project with Louisville Gas & Electric.
GE has already launched a smart water heater, and intends to start marketing appliances, along with a $200 to $250 home energy management device to help control them, in the coming years.
Appliance maker Whirlpool (NYSE:WHR) has set itself a 2011 deadline to bring one million smart clothes dryers to market, and Samsung (OTC:SSNLF), Panasonic (PC) and LG (OTC:LGERF) are among the other "white goods" giants planning appliances with two-way communications and control.
All these appliance makers, however, are awaiting the emergence of communications standard for linking smart appliances to smart meter networks or other systems to bridge the gap between homes and utility control rooms.
As the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers reported earlier this week, without open, standards-based communications – as well as new variable pricing programs to encourage conservation during expensive peak power times in exchange for cheaper power at off-peak – smart appliances won't take off.
Of course, utilities already have lots of legacy communications and control technologies in the field, and smart meters and other utility-to-home networks use a variety of communications ranging the spectrum from proprietary to standards based.
IBM on Tuesday announced yet another utility partnership with Australian utility Western Power to add to the close to 50 smart grid projects it has underway.
IBM will help the utility plan, deploy and manage the IT backbone for its Perth Solar City Project, a $73.5 million project to bring free energy advisory services and big incentives on hot water and photovoltaic solar systems to the city's residents.
"Australia's moving very quickly" on rolling out smart grid systems, Michael Valocchi, energy and utilities consultant for IBM's Global Business Services division, said of the project - one of several IBM has underway in the country.
Australia is also a deregulated utility market, which gives added impetus to deploy IT infrastructures that can link energy distribution utilities like Western Power and the retail utilities that sell to customers, he noted.
In the meantime, aerospace and defense giant Boeing (NYSE:BA) on Tuesday said it was moving into another aspect of smart grid systems – networking streetlights. Boeing will work with Danish company Amplex, which is involved in similar projects in the United States, Europe and the Middle East.
Boeing is one of a host of defense contractors, including Lockheed Martin (NYSE:LMT), Raytheon (NYSE:RTN) and BAE Systems (OTCPK:BAESY), offering project integration, communications and security expertise to the smart grid industry.
As for streetlights, they can constitute up to 40 percent of a city's power bills, and Boeing and Amplex announced they expected to be able to cut that by 25 percent to 35 percent.
Networking those streetlights is a strength of smart meter and building automation technology maker Echelon (NASDAQ:ELON), and finding cheaper ways to replace energy-wasting sodium halogen bulbs with power-sipping LEDs is one of the vanguard markets for solid-state lighting.