What Can We Expect from the Smart Grid?

Apr 09, 14 What Can We Expect from the Smart Grid?

There’s no doubt that the smart grid is coming, but it’s not well understood by most people. What will it look like? How will it help us? Should we worry about its security and our privacy?

At a recent Women in Cleantech and Sustainability event moderated by Lisa Ann Pinkerton, a panel of smart and well-informed women was on hand to shed light on the mysteries of the smart grid.

Making the grid sexy

All agreed that we need the smart grid. And we’re still a ways from getting there.

As Jana Van Greunen, VP of Software Engineering at Silver Spring Networks, noted, “A lot of smart grid products don’t look so sexy.” She believes that as the industry looks to engage the consumer, we need to consider design.

A great example is the Nest Thermostat. It’s become a household name, especially since Google’s purchase, though it is in only 1% of American households.

Laura Meadors, Director of Corporate Strategy & Business Development at GridMaven Utility Solutions, thinks the Nest’s differentiator is design. There are similar products out there not getting nearly the same attention.

As Van Greunen pointed out, the Nest is also presented in a positive light: the message is to  optimize the user experience, rather than to react to a negative situation like bad air quality or a problem with the grid.

Utilities have not been great at customer engagement, so maybe they can learn a few things from the Nest’s success.

Collecting useful data through the smart grid

In another example of utilities not being great with their messaging, a lot of people worry that with smart meters, the utility will be collecting their private data. I don’t personally have a problem with my utility knowing that I run a refrigerator, but this is a serious concern for many. We know that already, utilities are collecting a lot of data. Pinkerton posed the question, How is it being used?

Christine Hertzog, Managing Director of the Smart Grid Library, noted that PG&E customers can sign up to get data on their own power usage. I know people who have saved money by getting insight on their usage and cutting back in certain areas, or switching to LED lights. Surprisingly, some people still fear the potential health hazards of smart meters, but more than one panelist pointed out that we should be more worried about our smart phones, which we keep closer to our bodies.

Hertzog and Meadors pointed to some unexpected benefits from smart meters. The data from them is allowing utilities to detect outages more easily. They might even detect an outage while you’re at work and fix it by the time you get home. It’s now easier to pinpoint where a problem is, making fixes quicker. And it’s also easier to see if a meter has been tampered with. Preventing people from stealing power benefits consumers as well as utilities.

An added benefit, according to Van Greunen, is the ability to see the voltage at each grid endpoint. This will be crucial as we bring more renewables, like distributed solar, onto the grid.

But these benefits remain invisible to consumers. This seems like a good opportunity to make the smart grid more sexy — and understandable — for the average person.

Keeping the grid secure

A serious concern is keeping the grid secure. Our current grid is highly vulnerable, so this is another prime opportunity for the smart grid.

As Meadors noted, today’s grid is fragmented. We need a “manager of managers,” she said. Such a system would promote the security of each network, with intersection points connecting them.

There’s no reason, Van Greunen said, not to implement internet security standards for the smart grid. Hertzog fears it will take a serious wake-up call to push us there. We’re dealing with something new, which generally requires changing the culture — not something utilities are swift to do.

She compared the situation to 25 – 30 years ago when voicemail came on the scene. Some voicemail boxes were being taken over by the mafia. How did they get in? Telecom and IT managers didn’t change the default password set for the systems. They needed a culture change to adapt to the new technology.

The smart grid industry is still figuring all this out. Some standards discussions are happening, and the hope is that as the smart grid develops, it will become one platform – as is the case for telecom and credit cards. Hertzog hasn’t seen this happening yet for the utility industry, though Meadors said some companies are trying to do it. But it won’t happen overnight.

Moving the grid into the future

What can we expect from the smart grid?

The panelists agreed that resilience of this critical infrastructure will be a major focus. In California, this will relate to climate change adaptation, while in other areas the focus will be more frequent storms.

Also crucial will be finding ways to make the grid one unified system. Utilities will be looking to share technologies and lessons learned.

We can expect something akin to what happened in telecom, as we move toward “transactive energy” that allows customers to be prosumers. Important in this will be changing people’s behavior, as Opower has been successful in doing.

Some challenges remain, storage being a big one. But technical challenges like this aren’t really the hurdles. What emerged from the panel discussion is that changing  culture and behavior are key to moving the grid forward.

Rosana Francescato is Director of Communications at Sunible.com, an online marketplace that’s radically simplifying the home solar buying experience. She’s on the board of Women in Cleantech and Sustainability and the steering committee of the Local Clean Energy Alliance. She’s been the top individual fundraiser at the GRID Alternatives Bay Area Solarthon four years in a row.

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