It's not just for geeks anymore

Up-and-coming "smart grid" companies competed with government agencies at a Washington, D.C., conference this week to announce what they are doing to usher in the era of electric integration.

The third annual GridWeek conference, which ended yesterday, has seen an explosion in announced pilot projects and business plans. Less on display were the technological toys that have long lent the term "smart grid" its geeky glint.

"This conference is about higher-level issues -- business, the higher-level direction of the industry," said Rob Pratt, a researcher with Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and leader of the lab's Energy Systems Transformation Initiative. "What's discussed here is ... big-picture stuff."

In the big picture this year was a strong industry presence. Service providers as well as electric-utility representatives crowded the halls of the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center. The conference agenda was packed with glossy, full-page ads promoting the likes of International Business Machines Corp., Cisco Systems Inc. and Capgemini U.S. LLC, in addition to a range of lesser-known businesses promising on-the-ground experience or unique offerings.

Underlying all the excitement, of course, are federal subsidies. The Energy Department has said it expects to hand out $4 billion for smart-grid projects.


"It's a lot of discussion about what [the stimulus] is going to do, and obviously where all the money is going," said Anto Budiardjo, president and CEO of Clasma Events Inc., the conference organizer. He noted that the new funding amount looks generous until you consider how much will be required to revamp the entire U.S. electrical system to smart-grid standards.

"You hear the word 'down payment' a lot," Budiardjo said.

This year's Gridweek attendance -- "in the 1,400 range," Budiardjo said -- was about double last year's 750 attendees.

In 2007, just over 600 people turned out for an agenda focused on the vision behind smart grid, he said. The goal for that event, which was heavily subsidized by DOE, was to build familiarity with the concepts and "to evolve people's understanding of smart grid."

But this year, Budiardjo said, the term "is almost in the vocabulary of the masses."

In shaping the agenda, he said, "We made it clear that we really didn't want to talk about vision anymore, we wanted to talk about tangibles, what people are doing."

In meeting rooms, that translated into sessions on business strategies, customer choice and marketing messages. Also under discussion were regulatory conditions, cost incentives and other policy drivers seen as crucial to helping turn the slow-moving ships of electric utilities (Greenwire, Sept. 10).

Looking over your shoulder

Off to the side of the gathering were engineers and researchers nudging discussions toward emerging issues. Pacific Northwest National Lab's Pratt said privacy and cybersecurity are key technological concerns at the moment.

For consumers, having a record of the energy usage of every household electrical device has serious implications for home security. It can point, for example, to whether the occupants are on vacation.

There are also "big brother" questions -- about surveillance or advertising messages so highly targeted as to be invasive. Would a marketer like to know how often you use your electric toothbrush?

Pratt said the industry is aware of such issues and their potential for derailing public acceptance.

If there are 30 people in a focus group learning about smart grid for the first time, he said, one will ask about privacy -- and that means several others are thinking about it.

For himself, Pratt said he does not have simple, clear answers to such questions. Ancillary services based on such individualized information, he said, could help utilities underwrite a significant portion of the cost for smart grid build-out.

Imagine that your air conditioner needs maintenance, Pratt said, and you find out about the problem because your utility tells you it is using twice as much electricity as normal. Or a consumer gets warranty service on a major appliance, using data from her power usage history to show that the equipment is not working as it should.

In return for upgrading their customers' homes and businesses, utilities should get at least limited permission to look at user data, Pratt said. The information could be aggregated into data sets that do not allow for personal identification but would still be valuable for systemwide analytical purposes.

Maybe from there, he suggested, utilities could market additional services to customers who grant one-time waivers for data use. For example, an advertisement that offers to see if a user's air conditioning is working properly could be followed up with an accept-or-reject prompt for data access permission.

The cybersecurity issue focuses more on hackers and the homeland security implications of running critical electrical systems over wires that reach into virtually every building in the country.

If someone with malicious intent hacked into a utility via his smart-grid connection, he might be able to take down wide swaths of the power supply. Such an intrusion could also provide cover for an even more drastic physical attack.

"The grid would become more resilient" with smart-grid technologies, Pratt said. "But if we've raised the level of risk, maybe we don't end up better off."

Other issues of concern

Another concern for researchers, he said, is how to balance power flows through the grid as it becomes multidirectional.

Imagine that highways are suddenly flooded with cars that can move not just straight ahead, backward and on diagonals, but straight sideways, too. Engineers need to be sure that increasingly local generation and storage of energy will not cause voltage controls to fail, which could fry devices plugged into the wall socket.

Other issues:

  • What kinds of batteries or other short-term energy storage devices will emerge to buffer the renewables that everyone wants to see more highly integrated into the grid?
  • How will synchrophasors -- listening devices that could serve as an early warning system for the conditions that cause massive blackouts -- be deployed?
  • When will there be successful strategies for "demand response," whereby electricity users or devices cut back their power draw for short periods when electricity needs spike?

To Pratt, these questions are far downstream from those being asked even two years ago. It is no longer about whether the smart grid will happen.

"I really think that it's inevitable," Pratt said. "It's a question of when."

He added, "And for engaging customers for demand response, the question is how many? Because it is kind of voluntary."

And that is where policy drivers and business plans come in.

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