February 2006

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GridWise, the Convergence Killer App?

I would describe GridWise as a Killer App enabler

  Anto Budiardjo
President & CEO,
Clasma Events Inc.

Contributing Editor

Like to know more about GridWise?
Check out our resource page

Wikipedia defines a Killer App as something that “is so useful that people will buy a particular piece of computer hardware and/or an operating system simply to run that program”. We all know the list of Killer Apps: VisiCalc, Lotus 1-2-3, Email, PageMaker and so on.

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Basically, a Killer App becomes the catalyst for a technology that may exist but has lain dormant for some time.

If you dissect this concept, you will realize that Killer Apps can only be so because they create significant value, value that the underlying technology was not delivering. The Apple II computer was a nice “toy” but when you install VisiCalc it became an indispensable business tool of such high value that it became a tool used by financial workers, bond traders and business people – purely for the benefit that VisiCalc delivered.

For a few years now, we’ve been talking about Integration, Open Systems and Convergence. Throughout that time, we searched high and low for that compelling value that would propel what we know can be done into reality. We know that the technology is there, the skill set is there, and while not all the products are there, we know they can be built.

Killer App Contenders

Many people say that Web-based controls is a Killer App. Has the web changed building automation and control significantly? I’m not sure. In reality, web-based user interfaces to buildings are nothing but a very nice replacement for the traditional “think client” GUI/HMI. It could be argued that web-based controls did not ultimately change the structure and architecture of building automation systems. It removed the need to install software on the machine you want to use, and allowed a new breed of users to access the system. (That attribute sounds like a Killer App, doesn’t it?)

How about LonWorks, BACnet, XML, oBIX, etc? Are they Killer Apps?. The short answer is no, these are technologies and infrastructure, and alone they do not deliver that compelling value of a Killer App. To relate this back to VisiCalc, these technologies are like comparing Apple II and IBM PC. VisiCalc eventually was available on both and many other platforms.

The Enterprise could be a Killer App in waiting. That is like saying that calculating numbers was a Killer App in waiting before VisiCalc was created. The immense value that could be liberated from connecting buildings to Enterprise systems in real time is incredible; there is just no application or manifestation of realizing that value, not yet anyway.

Gateways could be argued to be a Killer App, there are a number of gateway companies that are liberating and connecting a lot of systems together, systems that use different network and data protocols. I don’t think gateways are a killer app, not unless someone produces a “do it all” box that connects everything to everything without ever calling tech support. And even if that were to exist, gateways are not applications; they are enablers, to enlarge the system and make things work better.

Wireless is another big disruptive force in the industry, and yet again alone it is not a Killer App, but wireless is likely to enable a brand new Killer App that would otherwise not be possible.

The Smart Grid

With initiatives such as GridWise, the convergence of the electric grid and IT is likely to see tremendous interest and potentially create significant value. So two questions come to mind--where is the value, and what does this have to do with buildings?

[an error occurred while processing this directive] As to the value, the electric energy industry is big, around $270b big. It is estimated that $450b capital expenditure is required in the next 10 years to build generating capacity to keep up with demand--that’s $45b a year! The problem is that we know much of this capacity is required in order to cope with peak demands that occur during a very small percentage of time during a typical day.

The vision of GridWise is that by adopting modern IT across all parts of the electric grid (from generation to transmission, distribution and consumption), much of the peak demand can be averted and thus as much as half of the $450b required can be avoided. The value proposition is as simple as that, save $225b!

What do buildings have to do with it? We know that the operation of buildings taken in the widest meaning of the word accounts for a third of the electrical usage. We also all know that energy management is a critical function and value proposition of building automation systems and that the industry is very good at it. But in the U.S., as energy prices continue to remain low (relatively speaking), it has been difficult to prove the value of energy savings through the implementation of convergence.

A GridWise approach, with financial and appropriate regulatory incentives could change this equation, especially with a pervasive IT architecture put into place that could reach the smallest corner of every building. The message should be simple, curtail peak demand by switching off all that could be controlled – the more that could be controlled, the better.

Putting it all together

As with the example of VisiCalc above, for that to become the Killer App that then triggered the explosion of the personal computer, there had to be all of the components, the infrastructure and software to enable the Killer App. For VisiCalc to succeed there needed to be microprocessor, RAM memory, disk drives, Operating System, printers and monitors, etc. Without that full array, there could not have been VisiCalc.

Killer Apps also need standards. Now this does not have to be ISO-certified standards, but a common understanding that for a certain function there is a standard methodology. The Apple II provided that standard albeit coming from a commercial vendor. I knew back then that if I purchased VisiCalc, it would work on the Apple II I had at home.

And, oh yes, it’s also important to have a need, a fundamental need unique to the time that had no way of being fulfilled by any other tool. In the case of VisiCalc, this would be the need to calculate numbers beyond the abacus and the electronic calculator. Can you imagine doing a cash flow projection or project estimation without a spread sheet today?

So, GridWise as a Killer App?

I would say that as it stands GridWise is not a Killer App, since it really defines a need and at best could define a standard way of looking at the national power grid. When the GridWise Architecture Council completes its work, the need for a common set of architectural principles will be addressed. I would describe GridWise as a Killer App enabler, one that is so huge that the Killer App that could be created would be a hell of a Killer App.

[an error occurred while processing this directive] The GridWise Constitutional Convention held in Philadelphia last December provided a significant piece of this puzzle. The Convention produced a GridWise Constitution of principles, a set of rules from a technology, business, user interface and regulatory perspectives necessary for the vision to become a reality. The document was signed by more than 80 individuals from all corners of the electric grid, including building automation.

This Constitution is a very important document. It provides stakeholders with a roadmap of how stakeholders should behave as this vision is realized, and what to expect from the execution of this vision. View it here www.gridwise.com/downloads/Constitution-12x18-lo-res.pdf.

So, what’s in it for Building Automation?

Building Automation is perhaps in the best possible position to deliver this Killer App. The reason is simple: controlling the Grid at the level we are talking about is just a big control job. The fundamental techniques are the same as controlling an HVAC system involving sensors, actuators, strategies control loops, networks and so on. It just has to be done on a larger scale across wide area networks (IP will work nicely here.)

Building Automation people are also in the right place right now. They are already in the industry that represents the most difficult and complex area to be implemented for the vision of GridWise to be realized. If the Building Automation industry did not take this challenge, what other one could? Not the security industry, not the electrical industry, not the lighting industry, not the energy supply industry (utilities) and certainly not the IT industry.

Let there be no mistaking this, building automation and control professionals as an industry have an incredible opportunity to look into the GridWise initiative as a significant growth area for business, with much of the expertise already existing.

Lookout for GridWise activities in 2006. To learn more, see www.gridwise.com and www.gridwiseac.org.

Like to know more about GridWise?
Check out our resource page



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