Advancing the Smart Grid: How DOE is Reaching out to Stakeholders

By Mark Litos, Litos Strategic Communication

In 2008, Litos Strategic Communication, under contract with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), authored “The Smart Grid: An Introduction.” Launched at GridWeek 2008, this 48-page book drew an immediate and enthusiastic response as a source of information about the present and future state of grid modernization. It also represented just the first step in DOE smart grid outreach, for it was also in the DOE’s plans to drive the communications effort deeper by addressing key smart grid stakeholder groups separately.

In early 2009, the DOE identified six key stakeholders—utilities, regulators, policymakers, technology providers, consumer advocates and environmental groups—whose participation is critical to realizing the smart grid. Consensus building and concerted efforts among these groups is essential to surmounting the barriers and capitalizing upon the opportunities along the path to grid modernization.

 

Reconciling Agendas

 At the 30,000-foot level, the concept of the smart grid is a universally positive development. Bringing the tools, techniques and technologies that enabled the Internet to the nation’s electrical grid promise to make it more reliable, efficient, secure, environmentally friendly and customer-centric. When viewed closer to the surface by these distinct groups of stakeholders, however, it can seem impenetrably complex. According to our research—scores of interviews conducted during several months—certain members of these groups considered the smart grid impossible to achieve, particularly in view of their necessarily competing agendas. Most notable was the constant push and pull between investor-owned utilities (IOUs) and regulators, between satisfying shareholders and safeguarding ratepayers.

Our communications strategy for the DOE Smart Grid Stakeholders Series was consistent with that which informed the first book. We established an ecumenical voice—unbiased, tech-agnostic, relatively jargon-free and as objective as possible—to communicate the benefits of the smart grid—but never to overpromise. Additionally, we suggested possible roles and responsibilities to each stakeholder who might be eager to move the smart grid forward:

  • To utilities, the owners of the infrastructure, the publication’s key message is, “You own the grid. Take the lead in moving toward smart grid implementation.”
  • To regulators, both federal and state, the arbiters of fairness between those who provide energy and those who use it, the publication conveyed the notion that fairness and the future are not mutually exclusive.
  • To policymakers, both state and federal, the architects of our nation’s future, the book suggested that for those with the political will, the time is now to exercise it.
  • To technology providers, innovators whose products are available now to catalyze smart grid transformation, the messaging was more tempered, i.e., “The time is right for your products and systems, but not for overselling them.”
  • To consumer advocates, professionals appointed to protect those citizens least able to protect themselves, the message was, “The faster we move toward smart grid, the more rapidly the people you represent will be better served.”
  • To environmental groups, committed to ensuring that the modernized grid and the natural world remain in sustainable balance, the book forwards the idea that the smart grid gets us to a cleaner, greener future faster.

 Our research yielded a fair amount of content important to all stakeholders and therefore common to all books—for example, news about the Smart Grid Maturity Model—but, more significantly, each one of these key stakeholder groups had a book addressed to it specifically for the first time. Launched in September 2009 at GridWeek, the Smart Grid Stakeholders Series was well-received. (Many attendees were just as interested in “The Smart Grid: An Introduction” as they were in picking up the stakeholder books.)

 

The Case for a Continuum

 When the subject is as fluid and constantly evolving as the smart grid, there is no such thing as the status quo. Looking ahead, maintaining visibility that we’ve helped create for the smart grid will require addressing the central conundrum around smart grid awareness building. To wit: The smart grid’s estimated time of arrival is itself wildly in flux. Most educated estimates place full-scale adoption of smart grid technologies 10-20 years away (many estimates are pegged at 2030). Yet $4.6 billion of American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds are being disbursed specifically for smart grid projects, which in some spaces may accelerate that timeline. At the same time, certain enterprising utilities, having decided to move forward independently, are virtually on the cusp of end-to-end smart grid realization.

Without establishing a continuum of communication and awareness, the smart grid will grow even more nebulous, remote and unattainable—essentially turning it into the bumper sticker many of its detractors accuse it of being. What’s more, with so many immediate challenges facing our nation, it would be easy to lose focus on the smart grid. A continuum of communication is crucial toward keeping all timelines in view and our nation engaged over the long haul.

To download a digital version or to request free copies of any of the DOE-sponsored smart grid books, visit http://smartgrid.gov or http://doe.energy.gov/smartgrid.htm.

Litos is president of Litos Strategic Communication. For more information, visit http://greentechmarketing.com.

 

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