feature article
Subscribe Now

Not So Smart About Grids

ADD Triggers a Crash Course on Smart Grids

After a while, all press releases start to look alike. So I’m not sure what it was that caught my eye, but there it was: “ADD Semiconductor is first technology provider to achieve PRIME official certification.” Maybe it was the fact that some company I didn’t know anything about was the first to be certified on a standard I didn’t know anything about, perverse as that might sound.

I was soon to learn that there were many other things I didn’t know anything about.

A quick look showed that this had to do with smart grids and smart meters. Now, smart meters are something of a hot topic in California, where we’re making the transition from the comfortable old rotating-disk meters to something more modern. And more scary. It’s not happening without a fight. Some people fear the wireless signals. Others don’t trust the power company not to cheat on the billing with the new technology. (Some early billing goof-ups didn’t help matters one bit.)

This further piqued my interest: what does it take for a chip to be compliant with a smart-grid standard?

So I figured, let’s talk to these guys and see what I can learn. Now, they’re in Spain. Yes, there is good technology in Spain, but I have to say, it’s pretty rare that I’m discussing something like this over a connection to the Iberian peninsula.

We got to talking, and it was no time at all before a name got dropped that was very unfamiliar. My notes say, “Ivedrola?”

Now, I ask a lot of “stupid” questions in this job because, most of the time, they’re not stupid. But occasionally they are, and I end up looking like an idiot. Hazard of duty, I guess. But I try to reserve such situations until absolutely necessary, meaning I might wait a bit before exposing my ignorance.

In this case, I quietly did some googling while talking (yeah, I know, I’m too old to multi-task… shhhh… at least I wasn’t driving… or chewing gum…) to see if I could find the answer and act all nonchalant, as if I had known it all along. And, indeed, I found it: Iberdrola. A Spanish power company with which ADD was collaborating.

OK, wait a minute… of all the places to be driving a standard, Spain? I mean, no offense intended, I have nothing against Spain. And, actually, they’re known for some pretty forward-looking ideas on renewable power. (Well, forward-looking if they end up paying off, anyway.) But it just didn’t seem like the concentration of population you might think of as an early market target.

Smart metering ought to be an obvious killer app for a chip maker. Just think of the number of electric meters in the world. How can you miss? And so, with so many thicker population thickets further north in Europe, why start in Spain?

Call me “Grasshopper”: I have much to learn.

Here’s how you can miss: have a dozen or more ways of doing smart metering so that there is no one solution. Almost seems to take the “smart” out of “smart grid.”

Inter-operability for a grid that inter-connects different utilities seems like it would be an obvious smart-grid characteristic. Apparently it’s not. And there are several different technologies used for smart grids.

There are wireless technologies, both ones like Zigbee and full cell-phone technologies like GSM and GPRS. Cell technology in particular can communicate across reasonable distances in less dense areas where things are farther apart. Of course, this also means that the cell carrier enters the picture, complicating the business (and presumably adding cost). Wireless is generally preferred in North America.

But in Europe, with lots of dense cities having lots of close-knit apartment buildings with meters in basements encased in concrete, wireless doesn’t work so well. So they’re going more for the wireline approach.

Here again, though, they’re not all working together. Italy is using Echelon technology, which is also being used in Finland (and elsewhere). France is trying out a number of different wireline approaches to see what to settle on.

PRIME (I’ve seen “PRIME” spelled out as “Powerline Related Intelligent Metering Evolution” and as “PoweRline Intelligent Metering Evolution”) is one of the wireline approaches. It’s intended to provide true inter-operability, with orthogonal frequency division multiplexing (OFDM) signaling at 128 kbps to allow smarter apps to communicate over long runs of wire.

(At least three things I didn’t know anything about in that little paragraph…)

Meanwhile, Asia has its own mix of technologies.

And different power companies in North America are making different choices.

And suddenly this doesn’t seem like quite the killer app you might have imagined.

So how can a new standard and a new technology make inroads? The promise of inter-operability is a nice thing, but how many years has it been that we’ve had non-interoperable cell phone technologies? Inter-operability would be nice there too, but corporate facts on the ground tend to trump nice.

More appealing is cost. ADD in particular is suggesting that their solution is more cost-effective and efficient than competing ones. They’ve combined the MAC and PHY on a single SoC using elaborate DSP algorithms on a 180-nm digital process. This compares to competing 2-chip-plus-analog solutions.

Given the number of meters that need to be installed, low cost – and low power – but mostly low cost – can turn heads.

But assuming that at some point governments will put their feet down and insist on grids that cross borders, ADD is also participating in the OPEN meter project. Their goal is to develop metering standards for all kinds of utilities – electricity, gas, water, and heat – using existing technology standards where possible. Once this effort is complete, they will send it to IEEE to get the coveted IEEE imprimatur.

So, let’s recap. A company I knew nothing about used clever inexpensive technology I knew nothing about that was certified against a standard I knew nothing about so that it could be used by numerous power companies I knew nothing about to compete in a market I knew nothing about against other technologies I knew nothing about.

Good thing I didn’t ask that question about “Ivedrola.” I would have looked stupid.

 

More info:

ADD Semiconductor

PRIME Alliance

OPEN meter

Leave a Reply

featured blogs
Jan 15, 2021
It's Martin Luther King Day on Monday. Cadence is off. Breakfast Bytes will not appear. And, as is traditional, I go completely off-topic the day before a break. In the past, a lot of novelty in... [[ Click on the title to access the full blog on the Cadence Community s...
Jan 14, 2021
Learn how electronic design automation (EDA) tools & silicon-proven IP enable today's most influential smart tech, including ADAS, 5G, IoT, and Cloud services. The post 5 Key Innovations that Are Making Everything Smarter appeared first on From Silicon To Software....
Jan 13, 2021
Here are some genius solutions to everyday problems you probably didn'€™t even know existed, but after you'€™ve seen them you'€™ll say '€œWow!'€...
Jan 13, 2021
Testing is the final step of any manufacturing process, and arguably the most important, and yet it can often be overlooked.  Releasing a poorly tested product onto the market has destroyed more than one reputation for quality, and this is even more important in an age when ...

featured paper

Overcoming Signal Integrity Challenges of 112G Connections on PCB

Sponsored by Cadence Design Systems

One big challenge with 112G SerDes is handling signal integrity (SI) issues. By the time the signal winds its way from the transmitter on one chip to packages, across traces on PCBs, through connectors or cables, and arrives at the receiver, the signal is very distorted, making it a challenge to recover the clock and data-bits of the information being transferred. Learn how to handle SI issues and ensure that data is faithfully transmitted with a very low bit error rate (BER).

Click here to download the whitepaper

Featured Chalk Talk

Accelerate the Integration of Power Conversion with microBUCK® and microBRICK™

Sponsored by Mouser Electronics and Vishay

In the world of power conversion, multi-chip packaging, thermal performance, and power density can make all of the difference in the success of your next design. In this episode of Chalk Talk, Amelia Dalton chats with Raymond Jiang about the trends and challenges in power delivery and how you can leverage the unique combination of discrete MOSFET design, IC expertise, and packaging capability of Vishay’s microBRICK™and microBUCK® integrated voltage regulators.

Click here for more information about Vishay microBUCK® and microBRICK™ DC/DC Regulators