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picture-116As large companies like Intel, Cisco and AT&T eye participation in the new, emerging Smart Grid, IBM has jumped in with both feet — providing software that greases the wheels of grid development and pouring $2 billion into startups and utilities building out a cleaner, more efficient grid. Today, it expanded its presence even more with the launch of its Solution Architecture for Energy and Utilities Framework (SAFE) for startups, a software package intended to support basic operations so that companies can focus on innovation.

First and foremost, SAFE helps startups maintain consistent standards so that their systems can interface with one another and with utilities. Even before today’s release, several startups have built applications that are compatible with the SAFE platform. This group includes big names like vehicle charging station maker Coulomb Technologies, wireless network provider Trilliant, and advanced utility meter makers Itron and eMeter. In order for any Smart Grid technologies to reach utility or national scale, interoperability is a must. And IBM hopes its new software will encourage startups to develop along these lines.

So far, SAFE looks like an attractive option for young startups vying to add value to the Smart Grid space. A lot of them have unique ideas that would require a lot of basic infrastructure to test and deploy. That’s where IBM and SAFE step in, providing a standard, interoperable platform that takes care of everything from basic business operations like customer service, risk analysis, compliance and asset tracking, to more advanced needs like integrating systems with utilities. That way companies can focus on developing the proprietary innovations that make them special and that push development of a more energy-efficient grid forward.

Drew Clark, director of strategy for IBM’s Venture Capital Group, gave Coulomb Technologies — which announced its conversion to SAFE today — as an example of the software in action. The company installs charging stations for electric vehicles along highways and city streets. Users can swipe a card at their machines and plug in their cars for a strong, rapid charge. With SAFE, Coulomb would be able to view and detect whether any one of their hundreds of charging stations was malfunctioning. It could also automatically direct a maintenance crew to fix the problem. By facilitating lower-level business infrastructure, SAFE saves companies like Coulomb time, but also money — the money they would have spent on building it themselves.

Clark says IBM worked closely with utilities like CenterPoint Energy to develop SAFE’s features, many of which help them integrate third-party technologies into their own Smart Grid plans. On one hand, the software makes it easier for them to track their own assets and even employees in the field via location-based applications, and centralize all the data they need in one place. On the other, it helps utilities digest and use real-time data transmitted from smart meters and smart appliances. And of course SAFE is completely extensible, giving utilities and startups alike a standard canvas for building out and sharing new applications.

The SAFE software package is a confluence of existing IBM technologies, including Lotus, WebSphere, Tivoli, Rational and Information Management. Companies like BPL Global, OSIsoft and Powersense have also signed on today to use SAFE. Overall, IBM is working with 50 different Smart Grid projects and is looking to bring more into the fold.

VentureBeat is hosting GreenBeat, the seminal executive conference on the Smart Grid, on Nov. 18-19, featuring keynotes from Nobel Prize winner Al Gore and Kleiner Perkins’ John Doerr. Get your early-bird tickets for $495 before Sept. 30 at GreenBeat2009.com.

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