Where is theSmartGrid’s KILLER App?


By Henry L. Jones II, Ph.D., SmartSynch

First of all, what exactly is a killer app? The notion was popularized in the book “Unleashing the Killer App” by Larry Downes and Chunka Mui, and now killer apps are sought in markets as diverse as computers and board games. Companies launching new products hope to unleash killer apps because they need people to buy their products to do something killer with them—something new, useful, time-saving, money-making, popular or just fun. Many times, the perception is that without a killer app, your concept is dead on arrival.

“What is the killer app?” might not apply to the smart grid, a rapidly growing ecosystem already shifting thinking about our electrical grid. What could kill the smart grid is trying to justify it or calling it a success or failure based on identifying one killer app.

What is the killer app for the Internet or other major infrastructure systems like the U.S. Interstate Highway System, railroads or even the dumb grid? There isn’t one application; what has been killer are the multiple applications that can be used inexpensively on the same standardized platform.

What is the killer app for the most successful technology invention in recent memory, the iPhone? It is not just a mobile telephone. Rather, it is combined with the iTunes App Store and a data network to create an infrastructure for development, delivery and connectivity of an incredible variety of software applications that range from patient monitors for doctors to interactive turkey calls for hunters.

All these major infrastructure systems have a common pattern for their evolution. First, a few government entities and companies, individuals or both design solid standards and then build systems that work for the most people at the lowest cost. Other (usually different) companies and individuals then build must-have applications for niches within that group of people who now have access to the new infrastructure.

We are all in the middle of that initial design-and-build process for the smart grid now. The important considerations at this point are how this new infrastructure will be standardized, accessible, economical and adequately sized for the future. We have qualified people working on standards through industry bodies such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). A competitive marketplace is enabling many companies to make the smart grid as open and capital-efficient as possible. With the recent stimulus announcements, the significant build out of the infrastructure also has begun.

The tough, new challenge in the smart grid’s evolution now that we are at large-scale deployment is to adequately anticipate the usage of its components so that the build out can accommodate how it will be used—before we even know what all those uses will be. Imagine if the rural miles of the interstate system had been built using two-lane roads (which was the original idea) or if the brand-new roads through the farmlands surrounding the major urban areas had been deemed “unnecessary capacity for current needs.” These roads have become the bypasses and commuting corridors that are the highly traveled backbones for the explosive growth of suburbs. The new roads enabled new ways to live and work, and the U.S. has been building more capacity for urban and suburban rather than true interstate highways ever since.

The lesson from these infrastructure build outs is that new platforms for innovation will create new uses, and these new uses will create usage patterns unanticipated by the system designers. Massive rush hour traffic, high-occupancy vehicle lanes and 12-lane bypasses were not serious considerations for the interstate designers in the 1950s.

An examination of some recent numbers for a widely deployed communications network leads us to some important smart grid factors to consider. The CEO of AT&T Mobility, Ralph de la Vega, noted that just 3 percent of AT&T smart phone (mostly iPhone) users use 40 percent of all smart phone data. He said this small percentage of users consume 13 times the data of the average smart phone user but make up less than 1 percent of AT&T’s total wireless customer base.

We should not expect usage patterns to be any different for the smart grid. Like urban rush hours and excessive smart phone users, some smart grid elements will be unexpected bandwidth hogs, most will not communicate much at all and only some will have the average usage we are expecting. Are the systems being deployed ready for this wide range of use?

Probably not. But that’s something we can live and grow with as long as we are choosing standard, open and economical hardware and software. When new capacity is necessary, we cannot rely on proprietary systems, and we cannot give single companies a stranglehold on the ability to expand any more than we could have one government contractor responsible for building our interstate system. Pulling together, we can build the smart grid as the vital infrastructure on which many killer apps will be unleashed.

Henry L. Jones II, Ph.D., is chief scientist at SmartSynch.


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