Mar 24, 2022 - Economy

Exclusive: SparkMeter eyes small utilities after raising $10 million

Illustration of an electricity pylon with a dollar sign at the top.

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

The grid-management firm SparkMeter raised $10 million from Accurant International, as well as existing investors Breakthrough Energy Ventures and Clean Energy Ventures.

Why it matters: Smart meters were supposed to make electric grids more flexible, resilient, reliable and cheaper. Instead, many utilities still only use their most basic functions — which SparkMeter now says it aims to change.

Context: SparkMeter carved a niche providing smart meters and grid management to micro-grid operators in developing nations, largely in Africa and Asia. With the cash infusion, the company is refocusing stateside — and targeting electricity providers with fewer than 500,000 customers.

The basic idea: It enables utilities to use existing hardware and software to better manage their electric grids by sifting through the mountains of data they've been unable to effectively use to date.

  • "Our platform to support grid analytics and new tools and applications will have as much relevance for small utilities ... as it does for utilities in emerging markets," CEO Dan Schnitzer tells Axios.

Flashback: It's been more than a decade since U.S. electric utilities began rolling out smart meters or "advanced metering infrastructure."

  • Those systems often haven't yet lived up to their promise, Schnitzer says. Different hardware and software systems remained siloed, and any analytics that they could have provided were instead throttled by limits on storage and computing power.
  • Today, utilities are using their expensive smart meter systems to provide remote meter-reading and remote-billing — but little analysis to make the grid smarter or more resilient.

Yes, but: Utilities haven't exactly embraced smart meter technology.

  • A survey of 52 large utilities published in 2020 found "that most of them are greatly underutilizing this technology."
  • The traditional utility business model, where utilities make more money for selling more power, doesn't immediately reward utilities for efficiency measures.
  • Electric utilities also aren't exactly known as hotbeds of technological innovation.

By the numbers: There are about 700 million electricity connections worldwide that either have no meter or a conventional meter, Schnitzer estimates. Roughly 200 million of those are in India alone.

  • Meanwhile, about 70% of electricity connections in the U.S. have a smart meter.

What's next: SparkMeter's portfolio also includes what Schnitzer called "metro grids:" self-generating systems — typically in developing cities — that can be 10 times larger than traditional micro-grids that serve more rural areas.

Alan Neuhauser co-authors the Axios Pro Climate deals newsletter. Sign up now.

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