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Breaking down Itron’s grid edge partner strategy

“The grid edge is now where the utility meets the consumer,” said the utility tech company’s VP of product management.

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Published
March 25, 2024
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A man in a control room

Photo credit: Peter Endig / picture alliance via Getty Images

A man in a control room

Photo credit: Peter Endig / picture alliance via Getty Images

As utilities around the country grapple with unprecedented load growth driven in part by both new data centers and manufacturing, many are zeroing in on software. A slew of new options offer ways to bridge the gap between near-term demand and the longer-term solution of building more infrastructure.

And while a collection of startups is assembling with load growth-specific solutions, industry incumbents are also stepping in, combining solutions in an effort to make control room transformations a little easier for utilities to swallow.

  • The top line: In a team-up announced earlier this year, utility meter-maker Itron and energy management company Schneider Electric are working on a suite of tools to help utilities navigate the expanding grid edge, and increase grid capacity while deferring infrastructure investments.
  • The current take: Stefan Zschiegner, vice president of product management at Itron, said the biggest changes that the company has seen have been at the intersection of the utility and the edge of the grid. “Utilities are being forced to engage with the consumer in different ways, because many of these changes are happening behind the meter,” Zschiegner said. “The grid edge is now where the utility meets the consumer.”

The partnership is one of several Itron has tapped to help its utility customers leverage the value of advanced metering infrastructure. It integrates Schneider’s digital grid solutions with Itron’s grid intelligence portfolio, with a focus on digitizing electricity supply and demand, improving asset management, grid planning, and operations.

When it comes to deferring capacity investments, many of the solutions — and challenges — for utilities come down to visibility on a hype- local scale, Zschienger said. Managing EV load growth in one particular neighborhood in Silicon Valley, for example, requires the local utility to have visibility and control of each individual charger, and ”today, they don’t have that,” he added.

It’s also a supervisory control and data acquisition, or SCADA challenge.

“Utilities are used to dealing with a thousand, maybe ten thousand SCADA points in order to operate their infrastructure,” Zschienger said. “But there are now millions of people that make decisions completely outside of utility control.”

And this is where Itron sees an opportunity, he added: to turn a meter into a grid sensor and home energy management device. Intelligent grid edge devices are then connected via Itron’s distributed intelligence network. Itron’s latest partnerships are about figuring out how to open up that platform for partners and customers to design their own solutions. 

“Initially, we partnered with a lot of startups and smaller companies in the consumer engagement space,” he added, pointing to partnerships with Smart Energy Water and Bidgely.

Ultimately though, Zschienger said utilities tend to be more keen on leveraging their existing systems, as opposed to adding newer, third party technologies. In fact, customers repeatedly asked Itron to partner with the people operating the new systems directly: “To really get the benefit for the utility we need to operationalize this new data and information in places where our operations teams already are,” he added.

That’s how Itron came to initiate conversations with partners like Schneider and GE Vernova in 2023. Utilities are increasingly demanding tools to connect the grid edge and the control room, Zschienger said, especially as capacity demand grows faster than utilities can build the infrastructure needed to meet it.

Those partnerships will be long-term, but are starting with what Zschienger calls the “low-hanging fruit”: easy-to-implement solutions that won’t be held back by utility planning cycles, and will have immediate benefits.

In the case of Schneider, that fruit is increased visibility at the end of the distribution line, or what Itron calls “locational awareness” — real-time measurement of load and voltage below the transformer. That’s key because most utility control rooms don’t have live, real-time data, and instead rely on modeling. (And, Zschienger added, many of those models date back to the 1960s.)

“Today, yes, the control room applications can ping in to ask for information on a case-by-case basis, but that’s not at-scale,” Zschienger said. “What we’re doing now is at-scale, we can measure in real time, upload this information, and make it actionable in the back office.”

With this new capability, utilities can access a precise mapping of customers at the transformer level, including identifying where EV adoption is happening, who has batteries and when they’re charging, and where rooftop solar is being installed.

The feedback Itron is receiving from utility customers in the wake of these new partnerships has been overwhelmingly positive, he added. “Our customers tell us that this grid edge portfolio, that has solutions across all the stakeholders in terms of grid analytics and business applications on this platform, can provide up to 20% more capacity when it’s needed, without building up poles and wires,” he said.

Today, Itron’s platform has 22 partners including Schneider, with nearly 10 million applications running, he added. The new partnerships have also helped the company expand its customer base, which has included doubling its utility engagement in the last year. 

Moving forward, the company's partnerships will involve the “mapping of customers” to determine where individual utilities are in grid edge digitization and what their particular pressure points are in that process — and build out additional tools accordingly.

Want to know more about how the spike in data center energy use is impacting the grid? Sign up for Latitude Media’s next Transition-AI event, upcoming on May 8. Latitude Media Executive Editor Stephen Lacey will be joined by three experts who offer a range of views on how to address the energy needs of hyperscale computing, driven by artificial intelligence: Brian Janous (co-founder of Cloverleaf Infrastructure and former VP of energy at Microsoft), John Belizaire (CEO of data center developer Soluna), and Michelle Solomon (senior policy analyst at Energy Innovation).

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