Energy Harvesting Heats Up With Smart Grid Fever

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Some day, all our homes and office buildings will turn off the lights when we’re not around, make sure the coffee pot’s off, adjust our thermostats for maximum comfort and energy savings, and generally be the responsible energy users we have failed to be. It’s the promise of the smart grid.

In order to do that, we’re going to need a whole lot of wireless sensors that talk to wireless transmitters and switches — and all those gadgets will need energy, too.

That’s where ultra-low-power devices and energy harvesting come in.

Energy harvesting technology allows for the design of items such as sensors, transmitters and switches with extremely low power requirements. They need so little power, in fact, that they can simply “harvest” what they need from sources such as sunlight, the glow from a light bulb or vibrational energy from electrical cords.

As the buzz around smart grid technology and the market for home and building automation systems has heated up, so too has the world of energy harvesting, and along with it, a fight over technology rights.

Netherlands-based GreenPeak announced yesterday the close of a $19 million round of funding. GreenPeak designs wireless remote control technology with extremely low power requirements that it intends to fulfill via energy harvesting.

In addition to enabling the creation of battery-less remotes, the company’s technology could break remotes free from infrared sensors. As CEO Cees Links puts it, “how ridiculous is it that in this day and age you need to be pointing your remote at a particular spot on your cable box in order for it to work?”

GreenPeak’s low-energy wireless technology also has many other smart home applications: It could be used for wireless lighting products, and Link has also talked about wireless controls for door locks. “We have automatic locks on our cars, why not in our homes?” he says.

All great ideas, but GreenPeak may have a tough time actually using energy harvesting. That’s because there is a struggle raging in the market right now over who owns the rights to the technology.

Siemens spin-off EnOcean developed its technology over a decade ago and claims to have patents on all of the various methods of energy harvesting. The ZigBee Alliance — a consortium of companies that promote the open wireless ZigBee standard, the de facto standard of most wireless devices related to the smart grid — has begun working on its own standard for ultra-low-power devices. However, EnOcean has said that any company that makes a product according to the ZigBee standard will likely be infringing on EnOcean patents. As a member of the ZigBee Alliance, GreenPeak could fall into that category.

“I don’t understand why anyone would want to start throwing around lawsuits in a growing market — it doesn’t do anyone any good,” Links says.

“But if that’s the case, then we will still design ultra-low-power and people can use one battery for 15 or 20 years, which still drastically cuts down on battery use. Obviously battery-free would be the best, but …”

For their part, EnOcean insists that its EnOcean Alliance, formed a little over a year ago, is offering an open standard as well. CEO Graham Martin disagrees with ZigBee Alliance Chairman Bob Heile’s description of the EnOcean Alliance as a “proprietary user group masquerading as an open alliance.”

“The EnOcean Standard is emerging from a proprietary solution started by Siemens in the 1990s and continued by EnOcean from 2001, but due to the success of the technology and the availability of hundreds of interoperable products, key manufacturers in the field such as Siemens, Masco, Leviton, Osram-Sylvania, Philips-Ledalite, MK-Honeywell requested that it be turned into an open international standard,” Martin said.

That process is under way now, and the EnOcean Alliance is working with the International Electrotechnical Commission (the international standards board for the electronics industry) on an industry-wide open standard. The first step is the release of the first EnOcean Alliance Profile Spec to govern and standardize product interoperability.

EnOcean’s technology has already been used by over a hundred manufacturers to create products such as room temperature sensors and motion detectors that use motion, ambient light or sunshine as their power source. Illumira’s new key card reader for hotels, for example, generates its own power when a key card is inserted or removed, converting the motions into wireless control signals.

Links likens what’s happening with energy harvesting right now to what happened with the WiFi market back in the 1990s:

“It’s the Wild West because it’s a developing market and everyone is trying to be the leader, but it will evolve and mature into a normal market with multiple options.”


See also:

Smart Grid: Digging The Foundations

What’s Next in Smart Grid? IBM Picks 5 Companies to Watch

Four Months In, Cisco Moves to Dominate Smart Grid

2009 Smart Grid Rankings Are Out: California’s Sempra Energy in 1st


(Photos, top to bottom: nacaseven / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; GreenPeak)