IBM Supplies Database Tech For EU Smart Grid

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EU smart meters project uses Informix, but some critics question if consumers want the technology

IBM has announced that it is lending its technical weight to an EU project investigating the impact of energy monitoring and smart metering on consumer behaviour.

The technology company announced this week that it is partnering with energy consultant Hildebrand which is one of the contributors to a 30 month research project into the impact of smart meters funded by the European Union. The Digital Environment Home Energy Management System (DEHEMS) is a Europe wide project involving a number of UK organisations including Birmingham City Council, Bristol City Council and the University Of Salford.

Living Labs Project

Five European cities are involved in the project including Birmingham, Bristol and Manchester. So-called “Living Labs” are being set up in groups of houses in each of the cities. The labs are based on installing low-cost energy monitoring devices – also referred to as smart meters – in each of the houses to measure energy usage and behaviour amongst UK consumers.

“Homeowners can access this information online in a simple format that displays their electricity usage and perform analytics, such as calculating costs against the users’ electricity tariff, or comparing their usage to the average for their group,” IBM said in a statement.

In the UK Hildebrand has teamed up with IBM’s Hursley Labs to develop technology based around IBM’s Informix database technology which the consultant claims enabled it deal with information more accurately. Hildebrand said that some traditional databases struggle to deal with pulses’ of data arriving at regular intervals but IBM’s Informix software solved this issue. Creating a single database object for each data-source makes it easier to store, extract and analyse data, the organisations said.

“IBM software delivered spectacular results. In the first proof-of-concept we simulated three million homes sending readings once a minute and we were able to capture nearly 50,000 readings per second using only a quad-core, dual-processor Intel server. In the second, we moved to a slightly larger server and found we could deliver analytics response times of between one and three seconds for a similar load,” said Clive Eisen, chief technology officer at Hildebrand. “You don’t need to understand the technical details – the point is that suddenly, energy monitoring for three million homes or more became a practical proposition.”

In a separate announcement late last week, energy management specialist Passiv Systems revealed the results of a survey which it said revealed that most consumers don’t want to manage their own energy use that closely. Seven in ten British consumers wouldn’t act on the information provided by a smart meter if they had one installed, the company stated.

“Smart meters are simply not a solution that puts consumer needs’ first and are shown to have little long-term effect on behaviour and energy consumption,” said Colin Calder, CEO, PassivSystems. “You have to question whether smart meters warrant the £9 billion investment in getting them installed.

The results of the survey are rather self-serving given that Passiv Systems sells an energy management system which automatically alters household energy use without the intervention of the consumer. The company claims that it’s technology works by automatically setting water and heating systems based on consumers’ activities. “It takes the guesswork out of ensuing your heating and hot water are as you want it. For instance, if you get up for work at 7:00 it will start the heating at just the right time and temperature to ensure your comfort,” said Calder.

Consumers Don’t Want Smart Meters

Last week Neil Gibbs management consultant, at Marchment Hill Consulting said that established utility companies are stalling the roll-out of smart grids and meters over concerns that the information available to customers will upset established business model.

“Utilities recognise this will change the way consumers interact. There is information asymmetry at the moment and many people have no idea what they are consuming,” he said. “Big businesses realise that this will change things pretty dramatically.” he said.

HP has also questioned the speed at which smart meters are being deployed. Last week, Ian Mitton, HP’s utilities industry director and global lead on smart grid technology, admitted that smart grid and smart meter technology had been overhyped and was not taking off at the rate tech experts had predicted. “I think one of the problems is that in a good many parts of the world – projects are not happening fast enough,” he said. “Smart grid and smart meter projects are slow to take off.”

Passiv Systems was one of ten companies chosen by UK Trade & Investment in January 2010 to be part of an exhibition of Britain’s best new technologies at the world’s largest consumer electronics show, CES.