FM broadcasters try to tune into smart grid appliances, energy management apps

We hear a lot about ZigBee, Z-Wave and even Wi-Fi when it comes to standards for smart-grid appliances. But a dark horse in this race could be trusty old FM radio, which Toronto-based e-Radio Inc. is strongly pushing. The company has developed an FM receiver smaller than a postage stamp that would be embedded into appliances such as dishwashers, washing machines and dryers, electric water heaters and thermostats. On Friday, it announced a deal with Canada’s national radio broadcaster, CBC Radio/Radio-Canada, which would allow the use of its cross-country frequencies for smart grid control applications. (See my Toronto Star article here)

The CBC reaches 99 per cent of the Canadian population, so the bonus is that no new infrastructure need be developed. The idea of using FM signals for smart grid applications was promoted in October by the U.S. National Association of Broadcasters in a submission to the Federal Communications Commission. As Greentech Media’s Michael Kanellos wrote back in May, FM broadcasters could become giants of energy management. Apparently General Electric is working with FM frequencies and is a partner with e-Radio on at least one pilot project. It will be interesting to see how much traction the FM promoters get. It makes sense to use an existing and reliable low-power frequency as a standard — these are, after all, basic telemetry applications we’re talking about.

The question is whether down the line we’ll need to send more than just price signals, on/off commands and other basic information as part of home and business energy-management applications. In other words, should we be planning for two-way broadband? Also, this narrowband approach causes problems for large-scale deployment of demand-response, since FM signals are a one-way thing — the utility doesn’t get a message back that a dishwasher at someone’s house was actually turned off. It must assume that it was. If, for some reason, a demand-response call is ordered but it fails to deliver, then a system operator relying on that command being carried out could be blindly taking actions that put grid reliability at risk. These are issues to be sorted out.

4 thoughts on “FM broadcasters try to tune into smart grid appliances, energy management apps”

  1. Is it that critical that they get a signal back that the dishwasher (etc.) gets turned off? In general they will only be controlling a subset of the load, so as some appliances get turned off others might get turned on. The signal they need to get back is a drop in electrical demand, which should be a as quickly transmitted and quicker to interpret and react to than hundreds of thousands of microload responses.
    I could see the utility wanting two-way communication with the larger loads (industrial processes), which could have a different technology. Two-way communication for home appliances would likely not be required for utility power management, but would likely be used for gimmicks such as automatically restocking fridge for some items, or automatic maintenance calls.

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