Utilities and vendors were taken by surprise when the news broke that Southern California Edison (SCE) – one of California’s investor-owned utilities – had lodged a patent application on its advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) “use cases”. Was there a threat to SCE’s AMI deployment sufficient to justify this action and are other deployments under threat as a consequence, or is the action of a pre-emptive nature and thus “perhaps simply a tempest in a teapot”, as one industry consultant phrased it?

To unpack the issue, Smart Energy International spoke to SCE Vice President Paul de Martini, who is overseeing the Edison SmartConnect programme.

Smart Energy International: Please describe the Edison SmartConnect project and how it was developed.

De Martini: SCE began developing its smart metering programme in 2005, and took a “clean slate” approach – working with utilities, meter manufacturers and technology partners to develop a smart metering and communication system that would offer advanced benefits and functionality beyond those required by the state or offered by existing technologies. The result was Edison SmartConnect’s added customer-value features, which include two-way communication from the “smart” meter, personalised customer energy-use information, and home area networking capability, all built on a secure and open standards platform. These features ensure a foundation is laid for future growth and advancement.

CARTOON

The connected home envisaged under
SCE’s SmartConnect programme.

Edison SmartConnect has taken an open innovation approach, sharing best practices information with utilities and companies nationally and internationally. The programme is considered one of most advanced in the world and has been granted numerous awards for its thought leadership, and management.

SCE will install 5.3 million new smart meters for residential and small business customers from 2009 until 2012.

Smart Energy International: What is the basis for the decision to file a patent application and what does it aim to achieve?

De Martini: The SCE patent application seeks to capture SCE’s intended use of an AMI system. SCE filed the application in an attempt to ensure that the company can freely use its ideas for the use of AMI technology to provide its utility customers with the value identified in the $1.7 billion business case, and also be made available to others. The patent application includes specific ideas about how SCE plans to use its smart meter system to empower customers to manage their energy and to improve SCE’s operational efficiency.

At the time SCE began to develop the use cases, there was no recognised neutral depository for open source materials related to AMI. As a result, SCE determined that a patent filing was the best way to make the use cases available to the public quickly and in a way that would establish the creation date for the use cases. Recently, SCE has been active in its pursuit of the Smart Grid Open Source Repository, which may prevent the need for future patent applications.

Smart Energy International: What does the application cover and what is excluded?

De Martini: SCE’s business methods patent application with the US Patent Office is for the use of the business processes described in the SCE AMI 2006 use cases within the United States. The patent covers the ways that SCE expects to use its smart meter system to enable its customers to make smarter energy choices. As is typical, the patent application does claim broad business uses for an advanced metering system. The patent process will determine whether or not SCE has developed new uses for an advanced metering system that satisfy the requirements for a patent.

The patent does not cover the design of the underlying AMI technology. This is also a US patent, which means it does not cover international uses of advanced metering technologies.

Smart Energy International: How long do you envisage the application process will take?

De Martini: SCE’s initial development of ideas for use of an AMI system began in late 2004. SCE developed its application filing in 2005, and filed a provisional patent in January 2006. The final patent application was filed in early 2007.

SCE’s patent application has not yet been granted. The US Patent Office is currently reviewing the application, and action is expected by the fourth quarter of 2009. SCE is not aware of any existing challenges to its patent application at this time, and expects the application process will uncover existing prior claims, if any.

Smart Energy International: If it is granted, what are the implications for the industry – ie for other utility AMI developments and system developers/vendors, particularly those involved in SmartConnect – both now while the application is pending and in the future?

De Martini: Continuing its commitment to open source, SCE has made a non-exclusive, worldwide, royalty-free licence available for others to use its copyrighted AMI 2006 use cases; and, if a US patent is granted, for the royalty-free use of the processes covered by the patent. SCE has reviewed its process patent application and open source licence approach with the California Public Utilities Commission’s Energy Division and Division of Ratepayer Advocacy.

SCE’s licence does not constrain development of new or different uses of an AMI system or AMI technologies. In the spirit of open innovation, SCE solicited industry comments for its licence agreement. The result is an agreement written to allow the SCE AMI 2006 Use Cases to be used by others in developing either proprietary or open source derivative works, since there is no requirement that the derivative works be made available on an open source basis.