Inciting Awareness: How DOE Supports the Smart Grid

by Mark Litos, Litos Strategic Communication

However you choose to define it, there is no ignoring it, pooh-poohing it or pretending it doesn’t exist. The smart grid is coming, whatever the heck that means.

Whether the smart grid as you see it reinvents electric generation, transmission and distribution or merely enables you to wrest all possible efficiencies from an existing system in a shorter term, its promise is definitely upon us. And some serious operating cash has recently shown up, too. Last month, President Barack Obama’s economic stimulus package ticketed an immediate investment of $4.6 billion in smart grid development.

The challenge to its realization comes not in envisioning the coming transition from the old to the new or the past to the future. The challenge comes in doing the hard work to transform it from vision to reality. Implicit in this statement is ensuring that everyone is on the proverbial same page; that a common lexicon exists; that all stakeholders are speaking the same way about the same things.

Meet the Grid

It was in 2007 when my firm, Litos Strategic Communication (LSC), first came in contact with the smart grid. Long active in the energy space, we were tasked with the development of a business-marketing plan for the GridWise Alliance (GWA), the private component of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) public-private partnership around smart grid activity. During the research phase, we interviewed several of the most learned heads in the business–from utility executives to regulators, technology providers to grid operators. Their opinions were strong and often conflicting. As we canvassed the landscape further, we encountered many smart, savvy and motivated organizations working to realize a modernized grid. In addition to GWA, these included such organizations as the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and Galvin Electricity Initiative. Each, however, possessed its own proprietary and marketing-centric nomenclature: Intelligrid for EPRI, Perfect Power for Galvin.

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From the standpoint of building smart grid awareness, it occurred to us that an ecumenical approach was required. Building momentum for and excitement around the smart grid required messaging that was nonparochial, could be grasped by a broad audience and communicated in layman’s terms.

All Under a Single Standard

Our advice, then, was to–choose your cliché–a), put up a bigger tent, b), pull in the same direction or c), get married. Resistance ensued. Persistence was futile. The DOE and only the DOE had the imprimatur to move the ball down the field. This imprimatur was codified as a matter of law by Title XIII of The Energy Security and Independence Act of 2007. It charges the DOE with accelerating smart grid development, including building greater awareness.

It was a banner day in the history of LSC when the DOE engaged us as its official communications and outreach agent for all things smart grid. Our first deliverable was the development of a book, -The Smart Grid: An Introduction.

Bridging the Gap

It’s a funny thing about the smart grid: When you spend 20 minutes explaining it broadly to any relatively intelligent person, he or she will get it.

Now ask the person you’ve just told to explain it to someone else, and you’ve exposed the gap, the disconnect in the dissemination of the imperative for a smarter grid.

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In 2008, -The Smart Grid: An Introduction set to bridge that gap. Written in layman’s terms for thought leaders and high-level influencers, it functions as a tool for building base-level understanding and awareness of the smart grid as the best option to address our nation’s myriad energy challenges.

Forty-four pages long, the smart grid book outlines the promise and power of a smarter grid, defining it as an enabling engine that positively addresses every relevant issue, from reliability and affordability to consumer choice and climate change.

-The Smart Grid: An Introduction was released in September 2008 at GridWeek, the premier smart grid conference in Washington, D.C. Nearly 6,500 books have been distributed to stakeholders and interested people. Canada’s Horizon Utilities Corp. purchased 300 to further the knowledge of its employees. And 1,600 more were purchased by the National Rural Telecommunications Cooperative.

What’s Next?

Publication of -The Smart Grid: An Introduction represents a milestone for the DOE and its Smart Grid Task Force. It has built awareness, broadened educational outreach and legitimized the need for immediate, concerted action. It is an invaluable first step, but only a first step.

LSC is working to build awareness, consensus and smart grid rules of the road among specific stakeholder groups. This effort should provide an understanding of how each group can advance the smart grid initiative.

No one stakeholder group can do this alone. But each can only benefit from independent, objective communication that highlights the steps critical to each stakeholder group in moving toward smart grid implementation.

While much of our efforts are in development, we are working on the following initiatives:

Individual Playbooks for Each Stakeholder Group

As was the case with -The Smart Grid: An Introduction, only the DOE can assume the objective high ground toward this end. Enriching and conveying this information by stakeholder group–with DOE’s imprimatur–will inform the significant next steps in smart grid outreach.

We are developing targeted communications to specific groups to help them understand their respective roles and responsibilities in the development of the smart grid, outlining steps they can take to advance the smart grid agenda.

The initial stakeholder groups chosen for this outreach are:

  • Utilities
  • Policymakers
  • Regulators
  • Technology/storage providers
  • Environmental groups
  • Consumer advocacy groups

The basic information architecture for each information resource include the stakes involved–and the risks involved with inertia; how it affects you (-you defined as your particular stakeholder group); the opportunities the smart grid offers you; the obstacles you face implementing it; and the steps you can take to speed its adoption.

Giving DOE Demonstration Projects Their Due

The DOE has various smart grid demo projects underway. But do you know more specifically what their objectives are? If so, do you know which ones are ultimately capable of showing the most promise?

Demonstration projects are the lifeblood of the smart grid. Their existence lets people know that positive steps are being taken, that progress is being made and that the smart grid is more than concept or theory.

That said, and given the mandate from Congress to build awareness, we’re about to lift them out of the skunk works to give them wider exposure.

Demonstration-project progress reports will be disseminated widely and regularly. They will continually convey forward momentum vis-à-vis the smart grid in a way that countless breakout sessions can’t. Posted online, all demonstration projects could also be collected under the banner of -The State of SG Demonstration Projects for wider dissemination at GridWeek, Interop or other events as appropriate.

For continuity, the projects will be positioned ecumenically, broadly and in layman’s terms to best convey the good news to the widening world of stakeholders. We think these progress reports will help recognize, dimensionalize and emotionalize the work that is being done. Increasing smart grid demonstration projects’ visibility will engage interest, solicit participation and build smart grid buzz.

Without Proper Communication, the Smart Grid Doesn’t Happen

As a national project, the smart grid is often compared in complexity and scope to the creation of the interstate highway system more than a half-century ago. Times 10, we’d add.

Globally, our approach to smart grid outreach flows from our conviction that clear, consistent and centrally managed communication to disparate groups–ranging from utility executives to environmental leaders–is essential to building the thing. It is critical to create awareness, context and, most important, support for an undertaking of this scale. From awareness comes advocacy, and from advocacy, adoption. Stay tuned.


Mark Litos is president of Litos Strategic Communication. He has spent 25 years successfully marketing energy programs, products and services. For more information, visit www.greentech

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