Small firms building smart grid solutions

The smart grid – an enhanced electricity delivery system that promises to improve reliability, reduce costs and facilitate the use of alternative energy sources – is in its infancy. But Canadian companies are playing a role in its development, not just here but in the U.S. and elsewhere.

Tantalus Systems Corp. started in 1989, long before the term “smart grid” was bandied about technology conferences. It was originally an engineering services company, explains Eric Murray, president and chief executive. Some time around its 10th birthday, Tantalus saw an opportunity in the emerging idea of the smart grid.

It wasn’t exactly the same opportunity others were seeing, Murray says. “When the opportunity first emerged, it looked like automated meter reading to the people that were in data acquisition. We looked at the problem a little differently.”

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Tantalus provides communications systems that allow utilities to manage electricity supply and demand through demand response – rewarding large customers for adjusting their power demands by powering down some machinery when demand spikes and running it when demand is lower. Done with certain equipment such as air conditioners, demand response helps utilities avoid firing up extra capacity to meet peaks, without having much noticeable effect on the customer.

Tantalus’ communications systems also help make power more reliable, Murray says. In the past, utilities relied mainly on customers to tell them when power was out, then dispatched repair crews without knowing exactly what the problem was. One promise of the smart grid is better monitoring, so that when something goes wrong the utility knows right away.

“I think we’ve done ourselves a disservice as an industry in thinking (smart grid) is all about trying to reduce somebody’s power bill,” Murray says. It may do that, but it can also improve reliability – and smart-grid technology will help increase use of renewable energy sources like wind by helping utilities manage the more intermittent nature of those technologies.

Mark Kerbel and Roman Kulyk started Regen Energy in Toronto in 2005.  It was their second startup, and along with a desire to get back to being entrepreneurs, they were looking for something in the smart grid space. The criteria, Kerbel says, were “it’s got to be something that’s going to help the grid, but it’s going to be sold on the basis that it’s going to save people money.”

Demand response was the answer. While Tantalus provides communications systems for utilities, Regen’s EnviroGrid controller is designed for those utilities’ customers. It lets power-hungry machines, such as air conditioners, talk to each other and to the grid, trimming power use when demand is high and ramping it up when more supply is available.

The company also helps customers understand their power use, says Kerbel, and in almost every case can find some electricity savings.

Customers include the Toronto Cricket Club and a major food processor based in Toronto, and Kerbel says Regen is close to a deal with a sizeable big-box retailer in the U.S.

Vancouver-based Rainforest Automation started in 2004 with a focus on home automation – “a slightly different industry,” admits Chris Tumpach, the company’s president. But Rainforest rethought its original goal of building a mid-range, user-friendly home automation system after realizing that “people weren’t really into that yet,” Tumpach says.

Rainforest learned utilities were looking for a simple way of showing people how much power they were using, in what way, and what it was costing them. It was about customer education, Tumpach says. So Rainforest developed an Energy Monitoring Unit that consumers can use to check their energy consumption.

The gadget works with smart meters that use the Zigbee standard for short-range wireless communication. A common way for householders to use it, Tumpach says, is to walk around the house turning things on and off to see how much they affect power use.

Rainforest markets its products to electrical utilities, which then provide them to consumers. Today the market is mostly trials, Tumpach says – one early customer is CenterPoint Energy, a Texas distribution utility currently doing a 500-home evaluation. Closer to home, Rainforest hopes to be part of a smart grid evaluation BC Hydro will launch this summer.

Prospects in Ontario are less promising, because the province uses multiple and incompatible smart meter technologies and not many of the units support Zigbee, says Tumpach.

None of these companies rely exclusively on the Canadian market. “We’re all exporters, right?” Murray says. “I mean, that’s what Canadians do.”  Kerbel says his company has far more installations in the U.S. than in Canada, a fact he attributes in part to Americans’ greater willingness to take risks and try new things.

Tumpach says the U.S. is leading in smart-grid adoption, though Ontario is also one of the North American pioneers and every Canadian jurisdiction is moving in that direction. He says international markets, notably Australia and the United Kingdom, also have lots of potential.

Canadian smart-grid companies can do well south of the border and elsewhere, Kerbel says – Canadian technology is well respected and Canadian businesses are trusted. But, warns Murray, Canadian players have a limited window to grow before “international entities eat our lunch.”

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