Smart grids, smart metering, and Make: Green

Energy & Sustainability Science
Smart grids, smart metering, and Make: Green


By now, you’ve probably seen those ads on television, those undeniably cool, impressive ads, for GE’s Smart Grid technology, using augmented reality. The purpose of these ad is to get your attention with some wow-factor so you’ll pay attention to the message, and visit their website — sure it’s about General Electric and their smart grid products, but the ads are also trying to raise public awareness about smart grid technology in general and specific technological components of it, such as smart metering. Retooling the power grid, here in the US, and abroad, is going to take a huge, concerted effort, on the part of governments, industry, and the public. So companies like GE are looking to get consumers conversant with the issues and technologies involved. What are we talking about? A little background:

Smart Grid
This introduction, from Northwestern University’s Science in Society page, does a great job of succinctly describing what the smart grid is:

Traditionally, to meet growing electricity demands, we have simply built more power plants and added lines to distribute the power to customers. But these improvements are expensive, costing up to $2,000 per kilowatt of capacity. To put that in perspective, the average home consumes around 2 kilowatts of power per hour, so building to serve just 1,000 homes could cost $4 million.

Building more power plants is also not an environmentally-friendly approach to the increasing demand for electricity. Instead of producing more energy, could the solution be to revise the current power distribution network and markets to use the energy we have more efficiently, and harness renewable energy resources such as wind and solar power?

Proponents of “smart grid” technologies think so. “Smart grid” refers to applying communication and information technologies to the nation’s power grid system–a complex network that routes electricity from the energy utilities to the consumers


The grid as it exists today was originally designed more than fifty years ago, long before the proliferation of computer and telecommunication systems we rely on today. The stresses that our increased power needs exert on the grid are shown through unreliable service and blackouts, which pose significant economic and safety threats to our society.

Smart grids offer a number of improvements, including some that automatically monitor and evaluate grid conditions, and report these conditions back to the utility’s control room. Devices on the network can communicate with each other to automate re-routing and switching to avoid power lines with faults, and detect and even repair faults in wires before they lead to outages.

Smart Metering
One of the key technology components to the smart grid is what’s called “smart metering.” The Northwestern University’s Science in Society page explains this basic concept too:

The smart grid also introduces a new level of communication between the consumer and the power suppliers. The current interface between the suppliers and the customer is the meter, which has remained basically the same, technologically-speaking, for the past century, and cannot communicate information to or from the consumer. Smart grids, however, allow power companies and consumers to gather precise information about the quantity and timing of household consumption, and enable consumers to receive information, such as real-time pricing and emergency grid requests to lower energy consumption.

For the next six weeks, GE is going to be sponsoring a special Make: Green microsite here on Make: Online. It’s an opportunity for us to talk about these issues and technologies in general (GE has no input in the editorial content) and to talk to GE engineers and scientists (if YOU the reader want to) about smart grid in general, and some of the specific things that GE is developing in this area. We’ll also be posting about augmented reality, so if you have questions related to GE’s AR ad campaign, ask about that, too. Feel free to post any questions you might have on this emerging energy technologies in the Comments, and we’ll try to find the engineers and scientists who can answer them.

If you want to gather some background information, here are some resources to get you going:

And don’t forget, we want to cover these activities from a uniquely MAKE perspective, so if you’re building any sort of “smart meter” on your own, a la Adafruit’s Tweet-a-Watt, or similar, or are using digital technology and embedded systems to monitor/control your energy usage, we’d love to hear about that.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series of posts sponsored by GE. GE had nothing to do with the content of the article and no control over Make: Online editorial. -Gareth

GE imagination at work

26 thoughts on “Smart grids, smart metering, and Make: Green

  1. says:

    I’m writing from the SmartGrid City, Boulder, CO. BUT I would like to get a head start – i’m impatient. I have this meter ( – Itron (formerly Schlumberger) C1SR. Does anybody know how to ‘hack’ it? In this case, let me be clear: by “hack” I mean passively read the current value! I’ve read that there may be an IR transmission out the top, and I read some FCC files about RF emissions (the “R” in C1SR, I think). How is it read now? Most likely by a guy driving by in a van – but does it emit only when pinged?

    Let me know any ideas you have.

    BTW – thanks Make Magazine for this series. You rock!

    1. Norm says:

      I know you say GE has no control over what you write about in the post… but if they are paying you, how do I know for sure?

      1. Gareth Branwyn says:

        Hey Norm. Quite honestly, you don’t. I will tell you that I take my role as a journalist, and that’s what I identify as, dead seriously. This is not advertising to me, this is editorial content. And I’ve fought for, and actually lost significant jobs over, maintaining the firewall between advertising and editorial.

        It’s obviously a deft balancing act. We WANT advertisers, we NEED them. Without them, we’d have no content, there would be no Make: Online. So YOU want them too (if you want MAKE), but we want to maintain that separation, our integrity. And we work hard here at MAKE to maintain that and we only work with advertisers who understand and respect that separation.

        And as I said in the piece, only a few pieces will relate directly to GE. The rest will be on the wider work being done on smart grid, smart metering, alternative energy, etc.

    2. Anonymous AMI/AMR SmartGrid Engineer says:

      @MarkChance – The C1Sr meter (better known as the Centron) you have emits pulses all the time, but it is unlikely you will be able to decipher them. I believe the frequencies iTron emits on are licensed, and the format is proprietary, as well as the radio module. There isn’t an “off-the-shelf” solution to reading that guy, or hacking it.

      1. says:

        Thanks for your reply… would it help to buy any of these Itron meter parts off eBay?

        1. Anonymous AMI/AMR SmartGrid Engineer says:

          That’s a helluva lot on eBay for 59.99! Even buying the meter though won’t get you very far, other than you’d have something on hand to mess with without trying to mess with your own. To begin with though, you need to understand how this works:

          1. A Meter manufacturer makes the meter, this means only the portions of the device that MEASURE the various metrics on the incoming electricity. GE, Landis+Gyr, Schlumberger, and Westinghouse are big names in this arena.

          2. A AMI/AMR provider is licensed to put a radio module in this meter, and either the meter manufacturer or the AMI provider (or both working as a unit) will sell it to the utility. Landis+Gyr (which acquired Hunt, Cellnet, StatSignal and several others), iTron, Silver Springs, etc.

          3. A third party may or may not read the meter remotely using the proprietary formats that these radio modules interface with, though most often the company licensed to install the radios will also read the output. See above.

          What you have with this lot on eBay is the same meter with several different module types. Only the C1SR is the only one you’d interested in, but the C1SC is particularly interesting for me to see on there (I worked on that module) :)

          Even if you got a hold of the meter you’d have to be one serious hacker to decipher what those frequencies coming out of the radio even mean, let alone being able to “hear” them (the C1SC in particular is tough, its spread spectrum.

          The formats are ALL proprietary and FAR from open. The intellectual property you’d be wading through here is neck deep. This technology being very old, great pains were taken to slam as much data into one packet as possible, and there has been a lot of suing back and forth to protect those formats. As a result, you’re not likely to find a spec hanging around out there for any of them.

          I would not undertake this until we get an idea of where these formats are going over the next few years.

    3. says:

      The C1SR attached to my house has an IR LED that pulses once for every watt-hour consumed. I bought a handful of SFH205F IR photodiodes from Mouser and will be capturing the pulses for datalogging purposes. There’s an “OpenAMR” project underway to decode the RF data sent from the meter, but I don’t know how useful it is, yet; in the meantime, it should be dead simple to capture the data from the IR LED!

  2. The Oracle says:

    “the average home consumes around 2 kilowatts of power per hour”

    This statement makes no sense, the units are wrong. It’s like saying my car gets “50 miles” of fuel consumption. Kilowatts are a measure of energy not power. Power is energy per unit time. So it would be correct to say “2 kilowatt hours of power per hour”, though this seems very high except during peak hours, so I doubt it’s what they mean (unless they mean during peak hours, again, it’s not clear). It is correct from a units standpoint to say “$2000 per kilowatt of capacity” which just makes that next statement that much more confusing.

    I know the make team works hard, but there seem to be more and more posts lately to do with electronics that just show complete ignorance of electronics and the editors simply don’t have the background to know. There’s also a lot of projects that are just horrible but the editors simply aren’t equipped to weed them out (for example the 7805+9V battery to charge an iPod or the recent when to use an LED with a resistor). Is there any way you can get an electronics editor?

  3. hurf durf says:

    Smart grids and smart meters for smart green people!

    Again, not green. Want to be green? Turn off the lights.

    In before governments monitor your Smart Meter and fine you for not being green enough.

  4. The Oracle says:

    You’re 100% right. But the sad thing is there’s no profit in getting people to turn off the lights and being green is all about profit even if it’s worse for the environment.

  5. Anonymous AMI/AMR SmartGrid Engineer says:

    This technology has been available for a couple decades, its been improving, but the impetus at the moment is that 4.something billion dollars were approved for spending within the next two years by the American Reinvestment Act (better known as the “Obama Stimulus Package”). Opinions on the Act aside, the battle at the moment is to establish a leg up, with two different sides of the industry clamoring for their technology to become the de facto standard.

    It seems the reason behind GE’s sudden interest in advertising a technology they will never sell directly to a consumer (at least not in the short term) is to garner enough interest/namespace around the product known as SmartGrid (an extension of AMI/AMR) to give them the edge when the committee battles over who’s technology to back as standard offering begin. Its a smart strategy, but its unfortunate that it appears Make magazine will be assisting one side of the industry without mentioning the other.

  6. n5bb says:

    “and to talk to GE engineers and scientists (if YOU the reader want to) about smart grid in general, and some of the specific things that GE is developing in this area”

    Is anyone from GE really reading this? How do we have a dialogue with them? What are their names and application knowledge areas?

    For example, I would like to know if GE is working with NIST, DHS, or other US government agencies on security issues with the consumer power consumption profiles. Do we need to ask this question of each utility using such technology? Are there any government regulations regarding the security of such networks? Does GE think we need such regulations to insure that consumers trust such networks to safeguard the power distribution system?

    And what is the delay in the control center knowing about changes in consumption? If I turn on an air conditioner, how soon will I see this change? Do I have to wait a few seconds or a few minutes?

    1. Gareth Branwyn says:

      Those are great questions, n5bb. Thanks.

      The idea is that you ask the questions here, we send them to GE, they get the right person to answer them, and we post the Q&A in a follow-up piece.

      So, do other people have questions? As I said, it can be general questions about smart grid technologies and making it happen, specific technologies like smart meters, and also, questions about the AR ad campaign. They’ll distribute the questions to the appropriate person on their end.

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Gareth Branwyn is a freelance writer and the former Editorial Director of Maker Media. He is the author or editor of over a dozen books on technology, DIY, and geek culture. He is currently a contributor to Boing Boing, Wink Books, and Wink Fun. His free weekly-ish maker tips newsletter can be found at

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