San Antonio, Texas, January 26, 2012 — DistribuTECH, the largest U.S. conference that covers the smart grid from end to end, continues to lead the way in information exchange and utility education. This year, from San Antonio’s Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, the conference featured more than a dozen conference tracks, nearly 80 conference sessions, more than 135 conference speakers, about 350 speakers overall and 21 Utility University courses.
DistribuTECH officially kicked off with an opening keynote session on the morning of January 24 at the Lila Cockrell Theatre.
At the keynote, Reliant Energy’s Bill Harmon, who is that utility’s vice president of residential marketing and product development delivered a wide-ranging and long-sighted address on how utilities can win customers over on smart energy technologies.
Harmon compared the task utilities have of attracting people to new and sometimes-misunderstood technologies to the rollout of another world-changing advancement from the past decade.
“Imagine if Apple pitched the iPhone as a polycarbonate-screened, oleophobic, gesture-based interface instead of just showing us that this was the coolest thing around,” Harmon said.
If utilities and energy companies insist on reciting a list of technical specifications and engineering jargon to customers, then the public will struggle to understand what a smarter grid and smart devices can do for them, he said.
“We need to share the value propositions of these technologies by showing customers what they can do with them in a way that they can understand,” he said.
An in-home energy display, for example, should show the user how many pennies and dollars they are saving or spending on electricity instead of requiring the user to know what a kilowatt is.
Smart meters may be one of the most powerful drivers for changing the way energy is distributed and consumed, he said, but it can be difficult to sell a customer on a change that they never thought they needed and did not ask for.
“Remember New Coke? Or the changes Facebook is always making for a more recent example?” he asked the audience. “Customers don’t understand smart grid yet. All they can see is a change they didn’t ask for that delivers benefits they didn’t know they needed, available for a surcharge that they’ll be paying for the next 10 years.”
Alexander Graham Bell, Harmon said, would not recognize the modern telecommunications industry at all. Thomas Edison, who invented the technologies behind the power grid, could still pretty easily recognize the power grid we have today, he said.
“Power is still produced centrally and consumed far away. Power still generally travels along overhead wire owned by a regulated public utility. Most of our meters are mechanical and not smart or automated,” he said.
If utility customers are going to be brought to the changes that the industry has in store for them, the industry has to explain their intentions first, he said.
“People aren’t going to choose a time-of-use plan because you tell them it’ll reduce the demand for peaking power. They’ll change because the plan fits their lifestyle,” he said.
After introductions by presenter and conference chairwoman Teresa Hansen, CPS Energy President and CEO Doyle N. Beneby took the stage to thank the crowd for coming to San Antonio, the city his utility serves.
Beneby said local lawmakers and his utility have worked well together over the years, and spelled out a few of CPS Energy’s goals, which included more use of clean and renewable energy, energy efficient city infrastructure, and a smarter grid that uses advanced meters.
“In this new energy economy, economic development and R&D can work together to boost clean and renewable technology,” Beneby said.
The city utility recently signed a 30 MW power purchase agreement to buy solar energy from Sun Edison, and is involved in an integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) generation project that can capture up to 90 percent of carbon dioxide produced and use it for advanced oilfield extraction.
“These projects help reduce our carbon footprint, but also provide a hedge against the regulatory uncertainty we’ve been seeing lately,” he said.
Ben Stein, actor, author, economist and pop culture icon, was also on hand to offer his trademark dry humor, but also some encouragement to the delegates. Without electricity, Stein said, the world we know and love today would be an impossibility.
“I am here to thank you because without electricity, we’d all be miserable,” Stein told the audience. “With electricity, we are super-men and super-women. Electricity makes us into gods, and the grid is the god-machine.
There are rules of physics at play in the electricity industry, and Stein said he was thankful that there are people hard at work who understand how those laws work.
“Electricity must be consumed as fast as it’s produced, it can’t be interrupted. If reliability slips, there will be blood in the streets — so your work is not only essential, it’s also cool,” he said.
Also announced during the keynote session were the winners of POWERGRID International and Electric Light & Power magazines’ Project of the Year Awards.
This year, Duke Energy was presented with the Energy Efficiency/Demand Response Project of the Year Award. California ISO took the Renewables Project of the Year Award. AEP Ohio won the Smart Grid Project of the Year Award. Going home with the Best Smart Metering Project Award was Toronto Hydro.