In a move that could revolutionize the generation of power for the telecom and media industries, cable operators are participating in a broad trial of distributed energy appliances that don't use internal combustion to generate electricity.
The Society of Cable Telecommunications Engineers (SCTE) has confirmed that an undisclosed group of MSOs are now testing distributed energy generators developed by Deka Research, the organization headed by renowned inventor and activist Dean Kamen. Using the technology in a Stirling engine, these appliances don't rely on internal combustion, but instead generate electricity in a process that Kamen describes as like a "refrigerator running backward." The clean technology can make use of virtually any kind of fuel, support long-term energy storage, and even allow users to send excess energy back to the power grid.
Deka is already known to be partnering with NRG Energy, a large independent energy producer, to test the generators. SCTE President and CEO Mark Dzuban said that cable operators are now participating in the larger NRG test, and that the SCTE itself will help to identify and record best practices in trial deployments. "We will be the scribes for some of the learning," said Dzuban.
At last fall's SCTE Cable-Tec Expo in Orlando, Kamen took center stage with Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) CTO Mike LaJoie to announce a partnership between Deka and the cable industry. The goal of the joint venture was to explore possible commercial development opportunities around Deka's energy appliances, but practical details were scarce then.
Both sides have remained quiet about any progress in the year since. Even now, while Dzuban was able to confirm that the trials have begun, he couldn't say which MSOs are involved.
NRG Energy CEO David Crane, though, has outlined his company's immediate trial plans. In collaboration with Deka, NRG is deploying a Stirling-engine-based device, called the Beacon 10, as an electricity generator in test households over the next few months. If all goes well, NRG hopes to start leasing the Beacon 10 commercially in the second half of 2014.
According to Energy Choice Matters, NRG listed the specifications for the Beacon 10 on its website earlier this fall. There's no spec sheet available now, but Energy Choice Matters reported that NRG originally described the Beacon 10 as being "slightly larger than a washing machine" and capable of producing 15 kilowatts maximum electrical output, with 10 kW maximum from the Stirling engine. The device reportedly weighs 1,500 pounds.
For the cable industry, Deka's technology offers massive potential as a sustainable, back-up power alternative. It can generate electricity from natural gas and work in conjunction with battery power and solar energy systems. Particularly during disaster situations when the electrical grid is offline, a device like the Beacon 10 could provide a valuable power source for emergency communications and relief activities. As a result, it could offer huge benefits to cable in the commercial services sector (particularly with healthcare facilities) and even in home security management where electricity uptime is critical. (See Business Services Finally Getting Respect)
The one big disadvantage of Deka's energy appliances today is their high cost. Deka must drive production scale of the Beacon 10 to cut its development expenses. However, cost is an area where the utility and cable/telecom industries could help. By tying Deka's hardware to services that take advantage of the technology's strengths, service providers could help create a business case for Kamen's Stirling-engine vision.
Although NRG and cable operators are just running trials now, the experiments of today could mark the beginning of a distributed-energy revolution in the future. Stay tuned for more developments.
— Mari Silbey, special to Light Reading Cable