GridComm: Smarter Grids

Singapore startup utilizes powerline infrastructure to reduce energy bills, overcoming longstanding challenges with this approach.

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Streetlights were considered a big improvement over gas lamps when they were first introduced in the late 19th century. And since then, not much has changed, other than the addition of more streetlights as cities and towns grew and different kinds of bulbs.

But streetlights do account for about 40% of a city’s electricity budget, which can amount to tens of millions of dollars a month for large cities. If those lights can be controlled more efficiently—adding granularity into the power grid so those lights are dimmed at certain times, turned off when they’re not needed, or turned off on some days and not others—those costs can be chopped significantly.

This has set off a race for smarter use of resources on a grand scale and an analysis of the best way to achieve it. Enter GridComm, a Singapore-based startup, initially focused on powerline metering. While powerline has been trumpeted in the past as a solution because the network is already built, the big problem has been noise in the line.

“Some people are using wireless, but there are issues with scale and cost for wireless,” said Mike Holt, GridComm’s CEO. “What we’ve done is make powerline work reliably using semiconductor technology. Rather than trying to create a single channel and then do noise interference, we divide the bandwidth of a single copper wire into 18 independent channels, which can be done in real time. You learn what’s noise and set a frequency for each channel, then set the modulation for more or less data—you set the amplitude and then you set the amount of redundancy you want.”

That, in turn, is coupled with mesh network software, which responds to changes in the chip. While the initial contracts the company has been winning are for streetlights, it can be used for a variety of other sensors, as well. One contract GridComm has won is in the city of Jakarta, Indonesia, which has 250,000 streetlights.

“Once you connect the platform, you spread it across to other communications, so you can add in weather, traffic and pollution sensors,” said Holt. “The real challenge with the IoT is not putting the sensors in place. It’s what to do with all the data you collect. So the ultimate consumer may be the city, but most of our customers are streetlight manufacturers. The cities pay for streetlights or upgrades and predictive maintenance, which allows them to save millions of dollars a month.”

Consider a streetlight that is next to a billboard or a building that is lit up for several hours. The streetlight may not be needed while those are lit up, but they might not be lit all the time. The real advantage of sensors connected to a network is that it can do real-time updates as conditions change. It also can be adjusted as needed to provide more lighting in high crime areas or where there is a history of traffic accidents, and it can be adjusted so individual IP addresses run at different levels of brightness. But that’s only part of the opportunity here.

“Our technology is being used by a dairy farm in Moscow to connect milking stations,” said Holt. “They initially tried wireless, but they had interference. It’s also being used for oil drilling, which is done over powerline because there is no wireless signal.”

GridComm was a started as spinout of Semitech. Holt and two partners bought out the company six years ago and brought in individual investors and venture capital.