Green

GreenBeat: Cisco has a blank check for Smart Grid, but what will it do with it?

Cisco Systems put no limit on its budget for Smart Grid development,  the company’s grid guru Laura Ipsen told the audience at GreenBeat 2009 — albeit quoting her boss John Chambers.

The question now is what Cisco (a GreenBeat 2009 sponsor) will use that money for — currently, it looks like the company is racing to get in on every nook and cranny of the Smart Grid business, from hardware to IP networks to cybersecurity measures. Will its involvement become more focused as time goes on?

Ipsen didn’t drop any evidence of a cohesive strategy — choosing instead to emphasize the importance of coalition building, diverse pilot projects and more education — inside and outside the company. In addition to spending funds to dig deep into consumer demands, Cisco will need to reprogram regulators at every level of government to prove that Smart Grid models work efficiently and economically. Ipsen said the company is already bird-dogging the California Public Utilities Commission dream bigger when it comes to grid.

“It can’t just be done with incentives to consumers or tax credits — we need something new — we need ‘gridonomics,’” she said.

Ipsen also said that Cisco will be rolling out a raft of new grid related projects in 2010.

“We see an opportunity for IP and an end-to-end communications fabric that goes all the way from generation into the home,” she said. “As for the products, I think you’ll see us at every critical point where we can enhance operation of the grid.” She didn’t go into specifics.

Many of the questions asked by both VentureBeat editor Matt Marshall and members of the audience centered around Cisco’s competitive strategy — whether or not it believes it is going head-to-head with hardware providers like Honeywell or internet titans like Google. Ipsen dismissed the idea of rivalry in the Smart Grid space at this early stage — emphasizing that companies are going to have to work together in order for anyone to succeed.

“I hope there will be a lot of collaboration within the tech sector,” she said.

This support doesn’t just extend to other major companies working on revamping the grid — it could also entail the coddling of promising young startups (that Cisco may want to acquire someday, for instance). When asked whether Cisco will foster this type of company, like it did in the internet field in the 1990s, Ipsen said, “We’re trying to build a strong ecosystem of partners — not any one person is going to own the Smart Grid. If we miss the smaller companies and don’t look how to scale them with pilot projects, we’ll miss some good opportunities.”

She did note one major challenge that is often overlooked — one that was address earlier in the program as well — that many of the Smart Grid’s founding engineers and executives are approaching retirement, passing the baton to a younger generation that might have a different set of skills and perspectives.

“We really need to bridge those two together, and connect student with engineering degrees to green jobs,” Ipsen said. She said knowledge of how to converge electrical infrastructure with information technology will become invaluable in the future.