Why (and How) to Make the Smart Grid More Appealing

By Jesse Berst

2006 was a year of great progress for the smart grid. Standards began to appear thanks to groups such as IEEE, IEC, and the GridWise Architecture Council. Useful planning frameworks began to appear from programs such as Intelligrid and the Modern Grid Initiative. Support began to materialize from NARUC and from public utility commissions in bellwether jurisdictions such as California and New York. Money began to migrate into the sector, and influential publications such as The New York Times, Forbes and The Wall Street Journal began to pay attention to the topic.

That last milestone may be the most important of all. It may also point out our most important task this year if we want the momentum to continue.

If utility automation is to get what it needs-the budget it needs from utility executives, the acceptance it needs from the public, the rate support it needs from regulators-it must become a more compelling story. Those of us who are advocates must become better at tying the smart grid to things people care about. We must learn to demand our turn at the microphone. And, when we get our chance to speak, we must be persuasive. That requires us to talk in terms that make reporters want to tell the smart grid story to their readers and policymakers to support it to their constituents.

To be more specific, we must tie the smart grid to the hot-button issues of the day. We must explain how it offers solutions to issues such as rising rates, climate change, addiction to foreign oil, and the ability to use renewable energy.

2006 Milestones

Fortunately, 2006 saw progress on this front. For instance, The New York Times ran a piece explaining how grid congestion means higher rates for Northeast residents. It did not cite far-off, mushy future benefits. It linked the inadequate, old-fashioned grid to immediate pain-higher rates due to the inability to transmit cheaper power from the Midwest and South into the Northeast where it is needed.

In late December, no less a media star than former Vice President Al Gore climbed onto the smart grid bandwagon. Writing in Newsweek, Gore predicted the climate crisis will force a historic shift to renewables and distributed generation. To enable that transition, Gore called for a newly designed distribution grid he names the “electranet or smart grid.”

Beyond the long-range environmental benefits, the smart grid can bring short- and mid-term benefits to ratepayers through demand response, time-of-use pricing and smart meters. Some of North America’s leading newspapers got wise to this part of the story in 2006. Stories about smart meters, BPL and the smart grid ran in places as diverse as Dallas, Houston, San Diego, San Francisco, Toronto, New York, Baltimore and the Boston area.

Early in 2007, The Wall Street Journal and MIT’s Technology Review magazine both ran pieces explaining how a smart grid could reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil. Citing a new report from Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), Technology Review said “plug-in hybrids (PHEVs) could help stabilize the grid if owners charged their cars at times of low demand and if the vehicles could return excess energy to the grid when it’s needed.” The PNNL report found that there is enough excess generating capacity to allow more than 80 percent of today’s 220 million vehicles to make the average daily commute (33 miles) solely on electricity.

Plug-in hybrids could be a boon to utilities as well as to drivers. In theory, utilities could sell more power without building more plants, because they would have customers for off-peak power. The PNNL report said PHEVs would increase residential consumption of electricity by 30 percent to 40 percent. In theory, that could mean better returns for utilities and lower rates for customers.

Plug-in hybrids are still years away. I cite them here because they are currently getting a lot of press and they provide a perfect example of how to tie the smart grid to hot-button issues.

Sure, we can explain smart grid benefits with phrases such as “capacity utilization” and “load-shaping.” But if we really want to be persuasive-if we want the smart grid to get the attention and money it deserves-maybe we need to spend less time trying to connect to people’s minds and more effort aiming at hearts and wallets.

Jesse Berst is the Managing Director of the GlobalSmartEnergy research consultancy. You can reach him at jesse.berst@globalsmartenergy.com.

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