It’s the Bee’s Knees

By Beth Bacheldor

A Canadian startup has combined ZigBee technology with 'swarm intelligence' to create a smart system for optimizing energy consumption.

ZigBee—a communication standard for active 2.4 MHz, low-power wireless devices—and bumblebees have more in common than just their names. Regen Energy, a Toronto-based startup, has combined the two bees in an EnviroGrid system designed to manage energy consumption during peak demand, and thus reduce hefty electric bills.

The EnviroGrid system consists of smart controllers embedded with sensors that monitor energy consumption, and microchips encoded with unique identification numbers. The controllers share their sensor data and IDs with each other via the ZigBee IEEE 802.15.4 standard for creating mesh networks. Each controller determines when to regulate an electrical load, such as an HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) system, by evaluating its own data and the information from nearby controllers.

The EnviroGrid system consists of smart controllers embedded with sensors that monitor energy consumption, and microchips encoded with unique identification numbers.

It's this "swarm intelligence" that differentiates EnviroGrid from other ZigBee home automation solutions, which monitor only individual utility meters or HVAC systems. Swarm intelligence is based on the collective behavior of decentralized, self-organized systems—think of the way bees work independently toward the shared goal of building a hive and making honey. EnviroGrid analyzes the collective data, then smooths out the combined electrical demand. "It's like sprinkling little brains on all these units so they don't all kick on at once," says Regen Energy chairman and CEO Mark Kerbel, who co-founded the company with CTO Roman Kulyk.

Each controller is bolted onto the side of an electrical unit; Kerbel says it's an easy process that takes about 20 minutes. The controllers can communicate with each other at a distance of up to 850 yards with a clear line of sight (heating and cooling units are typically situated on the roofs of buildings, so there is often a clear line of sight between them). At least one of the controllers within an implementation is equipped with a cellular modem that communicates the data culled from the controllers back to Regen Energy's headquarters. Customers can log on to a secure Web portal to access that data and monitor the activity of all the controllers in their implementation. They can view load summaries, see how much power was consumed during certain times, or drill down to view minute-by-minute details.

Regen Energy says its EnviroGrid system is suited to midsize and large facilities, such as multi-unit residential structures, office buildings, hotels, warehouses and shopping malls. Utilities also could use the technology to create smart grids that would monitor electricity usage so they could reduce power during peak demand periods, which could help prevent brownouts and blackouts. The company says it can manage energy consumption "without sacrificing occupant comfort or service."

Tests of the EnviroGrid system indicate that building owners could save as much as 30 percent on their peak-demand charges, Kerbel says—which, he adds, will provide a positive return on investment within one to three years. Last August, an Ingersoll, Ontario, retail store tested the system in conjunction with its local electric utility, Erie Thames Powerlines. EnviroGrid controllers were used on the store's rooftop air conditioners, and the results indicated a 20 percent reduction in peak electrical demand.

Regen Energy, which unveiled EnviroGrid in early 2009, says several customers in New York and California plan to deploy the solution this summer, though the company is not at liberty to name them yet.