BPL Lingers While Smart Grids Take Off

Carl Weinschenk

The power and communications industries have long flirted and have even gone out on a few dates. To this point, however, no serious romance has taken place.


For years, the broadband over powerline (BPL) sector has tried to gain a firm footing. The idea is that a low level of broadband connectivity somewhere north of dialup and south of DSL and cable modems can be provisioned through the power system and in-home electrical wiring. The electrical industry would gain both from broadband revenue and the closer monitoring, measurement and control of power distribution.


BPL never quite worked out. However, the communications and power industries still see sparks when they are around each other. Google has joined the Demand Response and Smart Grid Coalition (DRSG), a group that includes companies that make sophisticated metering and demand control equipment. The DRSG, which has changed its name from The Demand Response and Advanced Metering Coalition, said that Conservation Services Group, CPower and Corporate Systems Engineering also are new members.


Perhaps BPL is not dead. IBM said that it is partnering with International Broadband Electric Communications (IBEC) to deploy the platform at electric cooperatives in the east. Much of the electrical grid is comprised of rural cooperatives. BPL is particularly enticing for these areas, which often lack broadband connectivity. BPL has encountered disappointments and it may work this time because of better technology that, clearly, is where Big Blue comes in -- and the rural focus.


Though even its most enthusiastic fan wouldn't say that BPL has lived up to expectations, there are some projects under way. For instance, the Midwest Energy Cooperative, working under a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, is deploying the technology in its 12-county Michigan, Indiana and Ohio footprint, with services starting early next year. The story does a good job of detailing how the technology works and presenting the rationale, which essentially says that providing broadband to rural areas now is as important to their economic development as providing electricty was 80 years ago.


This piece looks at the failure of BPL and the birth of smart grids, tracing the sector as it has spun its wheels during the past several years. BPL, the writer says, didn't become a huge seller because of competition from fiber-based projects such as U-Verse and FiOS and the increasing speeds of DSL and cable modems. Essentially, there was no driving need for it. The writer says that much of the same equipment can be used for smart grids. These offer no broadband services, but do cut costs to utilities, by reducing truck rolls to read meters, and to consumers by mediating how and when electricity is used.


GE Consumer & Industrial late last month introduced a smart grid type project. The company said that during the first quarter of next year, a family of smart appliances will be introduced. These devices officially labeled Energy Management Enabled Appliances will take their marching orders from the local utility and will cut or reschedule usage in a number of ways. A pilot program is under way with the Louisville Gas and Electric Company in Kentucky.

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