The ZigBee Alliance Wants to Leave a MARK


By Kathleen Davis, senior editor

The smart grid push continues past the power plant, down the wires and into consumer homes. In a perfect future, consumers will recognize smart grid-compliant products like they recognize Energy Star and Wi-Fi symbols. (Energy Star features a star, and Wi-Fi is that little radiating stick.)

For the smart grid, that symbol might be a “Z” with a circle around it symbolizing that a product has passed the ZigBee Alliance test. The ZigBee Alliance is an association of companies working together to enable reliable, cost-effective, low-power, wirelessly networked, monitoring and control products based on an open global standard.


The Alliance’s History, Goals


“We wanted to create an environment that takes care of itself, that was low-cost and that had a battery life as long as 20 years, potentially,” said Bob Heile, ZigBee Alliance chairman.

The alliance began seven years ago when a group of companies decided that global open standards were the way to go for sensor networks, Heile said. They envisioned a practical, economic network that didn’t require a lot of manpower to maintain, lasted years and could be scaled up from two to an infinite number of network points.

The alliance’s ultimate goal is to provide consumers with flexibility, mobility and ease of use by building wireless intelligence and capabilities into everyday devices. ZigBee technology is embedded in a range of products and applications across consumer, commercial and industrial markets worldwide, and it continues to grow. With the ZigBee Alliance, companies have a standards-based wireless platform optimized for the needs of remote monitoring and control applications.

The alliance developed its first standard in 2004. It’s been moving aggressively forward ever since, searching for interoperability on multiple levels, Heile said.

The alliance has a four-pronged focus:

  • Defining the network, security and application software layers,
  • Providing interoperability and conformance testing specifications,
  • Promoting the ZigBee brand globally to build market awareness, and
  • Managing the evolution of the technology.


“The alliance is not a product-based company,” Heile said. “We offer the ability to establish standards together without competition in play, and we provide the maintenance and management of those standards over time.”

While businesses benefit from those standards, that’s not the alliance’s only advantage. It allows for multiple company voices, encouraging members to contribute intellectual know-how and provide input on proposed and existing standards.

“It’s the dialogue that’s the real opportunity,”Heile said.


What ZigBee Brings


Heile avoided labeling other sensor networks as rivals to ZigBee, and he refused to claim ZigBee superior. Competition is not how he would choose to look at the environment the alliance works in, he said, but other standards in the arena, such as 802.11 and Bluetooth, have battery problems and are not particularly suited to large sensor networks in the same way as ZigBee technology.

Those standards have security issues as well, and security will be a major focus of the smart grid, Heile said.

Talk about the smart grid brought Heile to a specific standard of the ZigBee Alliance, ZigBee Smart Energy, which was started about three years ago. A group of utilities recognized that they needed to be proactive in managing their loads. They easily could call up a couple of dozen commercial entities to shave power, but it would be impossible with 2 million residential customers.

Looking around, the utilities noticed that building automation had at least part of the answer. There were already systems to connect and manage all the big power consumers, such as air conditioning. Those were all part of the control elements for a building. Missing was the addition of smart metering and the expansion to residential customers.

In 2007, 35 entities wrote the ZigBee Smart Energy standards, which were issued in 2008 and have been selected for about 40 million meters in North America. They showed up early in the National Institute of Standards and Technology smart energy road map pushed by the Obama administration, Heile said. In May, the ZigBee Alliance was confirmed as one of the preferred standards listed by the Department of Energy to be used in the development of the smart grid.

What does the ZigBee Smart Energy standard offer? A template.

“These standards are the basis for utility-customer interaction,” Heile said. “They make the customer more informed.”

Customer behavior will change, despite all the naysayers, Heile said; it will simply be a question of whether that change will be painful or painless. Either way, change is coming, and the growth in the adoption of the ZigBee standard is one indicator of that change.

“The industry has no choice but to become efficient, and the consumer will adapt,” he said.

People adapted to self-service gas pumps and self-checkouts at the grocery store, so they will adapt also to become more energy-aware, Heile said.

“If we as consumers don’t do it, the energy bill will go up,” he said. “We will learn, however at this point, the political and social issues here are more challenging than the technical issues.”


The Alliance of the Future


When consumers learn and accept the benefits of the smart grid, that “Z” brand might start to stand out, though not associated with the Alliance. Heile isn’t concerned that people will see the “Z” and think, “Ah, this is a product that’s been tested by the ZigBee Alliance,” he said. He wants that brand to ring a bell in consumers’ brains that this is an easy-to-use ZigBee product. It’s similar to how we react to the radiating Wi-Fi stick on a box.

The “Z” means the product passed rigorous testing, though. The alliance has three authorized test houses, but it doesn’t test directly. Anonymous testing ensures no company has an unfair advantage or sway. The alliance is determined that that “Z”-mark certification means an unbiased, passing grade.

As the ZigBee Alliance moves toward the day when its symbol is ubiquitous enough to be generally accepted, it’s gathered partners to help push the smart grid.

“You don’t do any of these things in a vacuum,” Heile said.

In September, the alliance teamed with the Demand Response and Smart Grid Coalition (DRSG) to establish “a formal liaison agreement between the two groups,” according to a press release. The alliance became a DRSG member through the agreement, further cementing its place in the smart grid infrastructure.

The DRSG is the trade association for companies providing technologies, products and services in the demand response and smart grid areas. The agreement between DRSG and the ZigBee Alliance provides for collaboration on promotion and advocacy related to development of smart grid technology policies.

“This is a great opportunity for both organizations and for their members,” said Dan Delurey, DRSG executive director. “ZigBee is an active organization working to introduce new technology into the marketplace, and we look forward to helping it keep its members aware of how evolving policy developments in Washington may affect market requirements for the smart grid. Also, we are confident that the expertise of the ZigBee Alliance will provide DRSG with a better understanding of technology developments that are occurring in the industry.”

Heile and his alliance team are not restricting that expertise to Washington, D.C., or the U.S. In May, the ZigBee Alliance and the European Smart Metering Industry Group (ESMIG) announced that the groups will work together to define interoperable communications standards for smart metering technology across the European Union (EU). The ZigBee Smart Energy public application profile is the first open standard to be endorsed by ESMIG.

The ZigBee Alliance and ESMIG will collaborate and identify where ZigBee Smart Energy can be rolled out across the 27 member states. The organizations will evaluate ways to maximize the benefits of a standardized smart metering program for consumers, utility service providers and the environment.

“The ZigBee Alliance is both a valuable and experienced partner who can provide ESMIG with expertise and solutions for smart metering in Europe,” said Howard Porter, ESMIG managing director. “ESMIG believes that a handful of proven and open standards, like ZigBee Smart Energy, will play a key role in EU smart metering projects because they deliver the most value for all parties, and allow utility service providers with flexibility in choosing standards that fit their specific requirements.”

ZigBee growth across the U.S. and Europe reflects growing smart grid needs and the dominance of ZigBee in sensor networks, Heile said.

“We’re the only standard in town,” he said. “The other so-called rivals were single-company, proprietary solutions.”

Those single-company solutions couldn’t provide the two items necessary to win the game: Meet the requirements for the network, and be an open standard. ZigBee covers both.

“ZigBee is designed by the people who use it,” Heile said. “That’s why you hear our name all the time, and I like to hear it. This is an exciting time for us and an exciting time for the industry.”

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