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Tendril, a startup based in Boulder, CO, has developed a device that converts existing electrical meters into smart meters that can track customers’ energy use as frequently as once every few minutes. Working with utility companies, Tendril plans to introduce it to thousands of homes this year.

The device could help speed the spread of the so-called “smart grid,” a network of sensors and controls that could reduce energy consumption, enable the large-scale use of renewable energy, and save consumers money. Smart-grid projects will receive billions of dollars in funding under the stimulus bill signed into law in February. Tendril’s device could be used by utilities to introduce variable-pricing schemes that discourage the use of electricity during times of peak demand, reducing the need for the most expensive and most polluting power plants. Eventually it could be used to help the electricity grid accommodate more electricity from variable sources of renewable electricity, such as wind and solar.

The new device–Tendril hasn’t yet settled on a name for it–takes advantage of a type of electricity meter that utilities have installed in recent years to reduce costs. About half of the homes in the United States now have these meters, estimates Adrian Tuck, Tendril’s CEO. They use short-range wireless signals to transmit energy usage information using a proprietary communications protocol. Meter readers, rather than manually inspecting each meter, simply drive by once a month with equipment that automatically reads these signals. These meters actually transmit the data every few minutes, though data is only recorded monthly. Tendril, working with the primary manufacturer of these meters, developed a device that reads these proprietary wireless signals and then sends the data to the utility over the Internet. Utilities can in turn transmit information about prices to consumers, also over the Internet.

The system provides a potentially much cheaper alternative to existing plans that involve replacing existing meters with “smart” meters that have two-way communications capabilities, as well as establishing new communications networks dedicated to transmitting the data, says Steven Hauser, vice president for strategy at GridPoint, a company based in Arlington, VA, that is developing a device similar to Tendril’s.

With Tendril’s device, new meters and networks aren’t needed. “All you have to do is plug it in, go to the Web and enter the serial number from your meter,” says Tuck. “It reads the signal [from the existing meter] and mimics a smart meter from that point on.”

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Credit: Tendril

Tagged: Communications, Energy, energy, renewable energy, iPhone, efficiency, smart grid, smart meters

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