Startup’s plans for smart grid are highly charged

Analogies should always be approached with caution, but a local startup has embraced an analogy that it thinks points toward a revolutionary business and improvements in our energy picture.Here’s the analogy: Electricity generation in 2011 is like computing in 1971.”Back then, you had mainframe computers and you had terminals. There were a ton of wires, cabling that went to the mainframe. You couldn’t even interchange the terminals, everything was separate,” said Darrell Furlong, chief technology officer of ElectricRoute, a three-person startup of folks from the communications industry, two of whom live in the Nashua area. “The same (situation) exists in utilities. There’s a closed architecture – it tends to be one vendor controlling the operation of the substation – and equipment doesn’t interoperate.”For computers in the Disco Era, things changed when Ethernet was invented, networking was developed, and machines began communicating. Next thing you know, we’ve got the Internet on cellphones and computers are winning “Jeopardy!”Could equally startling changes happen to the structures and wires that bring electricity to our homes? Maybe.The buzzword to describe that hope is “smart grid.” For homeowners, that mostly means a two-way electric meter with time-of-day charges, so we could save a few cents by running the clothes dryer at night or get paid when our solar panels send power to the grid.For the nation’s power industry, however, upgrading the grid holds out hope for a host of truly massive improvements, such as saving thousands of megawatts via geeky improvements like better voltage tuning. A truly smart national grid, officials say, could save millions of dollars and help the nation reduce its dependence on foreign oil or polluting coal.It would also have benefits that hit closer to home.”When a power failure occurs – a car runs into a telephone pole and takes out a street – a guy in a truck starts to locate where he can throw a breaker or circuit, try to figure out where he can light up the street using (other) circuits,” said Furlong, who lives in Hollis.With a smart grid, different parts of the network could “talk” to each other and allow a remote office to redirect power, getting the lights back on much more quickly.The telephone analogyBefore this could happen, a lot of software and hardware has to change. This is where ElectricRoute comes in – or so it hopes.If ElectricRoute has its way, the tens of thousands of substations scattered around the country could be turned into something closer to a modern telephone system central office.That brings up another analogy, or maybe something that’s better described as a historical thought experiment.”If Thomas Edison walked into a substation, he would recognize a lot of the equipment. It hasn’t changed that much,” said company President Bob Dalias, of Salem. “You think Alexander Graham Bell would recognize the phone network today?”The company is developing the Connection Point Terminal, which it says “implements a variety of networked services, protocol suites, signal conversion, protocol gateway and NERC (North American Electric Reliability Corp.) security for legacy devices.”The firm is in the earliest stages, but the approach is promising enough that General Electric gave it one of five nationwide Innovation Challenge awards, along with a $100,000 grant. ElectricRoute is looking for initial funding of up to $2 million to create prototypes, then another $2 million to create a real product, and then a few million more for the complete testing procedure. That’s small change in a multibillion-dollar industry, but big numbers for a tiny startup in this economy.”The big guys are not willing to walk away from equipment they have already installed. We are very happy to obsolete it ,” he said. “A startup doesn’t have that kind of mindset.”Can that mindset make our electric grid smarter? – DAVID BROOKS/THE TELEGRAPH