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Top U.S. Government Official Recognizes Collaboration as Key Smart Grid Driver, GridWeek

Anto Budiardjo's picture
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  • Oct 25, 2010

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We’ve come a long way in the years since GridWeek started – from 2007 when Smart Grid was a much-talked about idea, to 2008 when we started seeing early pilots, to 2009 when the industry buzzed with the excitement of economic “stimulus” dollars, and now, in 2010, when we are facing the challenges and realities of large-scale deployments across the globe.

The last two days of GridWeek, which were focused on the subjects of deployment and Smart grid acceleration, could be distilled down into one key message – collaboration, entrepreneurship and creative problem solving are needed to overcome our challenges and accelerate Smart Grid.

Aneesh Chopra, chief technology officer of the United States of America, called for “participatory, transparent and collaborative” methods for transforming our electrical infrastructure. In his words – “for value, we must create participation,” he said.

A huge proponent of the internet and cloud computing, he provided examples of how the Internet can help create an inexpensive vehicle for effective collaboration and information sharing.  

Providing an example of the power of engagement, he talked about New York City’s 311 system, which enabled city-wide progress by giving anyone and everyone in NYC the option to report a problem by phone and then have that problem followed-up on in an effective and transparent manner. Of course, the cost of using a slightly antiquated communications method (the telephone) became cost-prohibitive – about $40 million in the first year, Chopra said.

Wanting a similar system to improve its town’s operations, the 6,500-person town of Maynard, Texas, employed creative problem solving to achieve the same results using an online system called SeeClickFix, a community-based social network that cost (drum roll) … $38 per month.

Chopra discussed how the U.S. government is fostering collaboration and entrepreneurship by issuing online challenges to help solve some of our biggest challenges – whether it’s the need for greener buildings or a smarter grid.

As it relates to Smart Grid, the Department of Energy’s recent Request for Information (RFI) is a collaborative online model that’s intended to seek input on key policy and technical challenges related to Smart Grid from all over the energy industry.

In the spirit of partnering, Chopra discussed the inextricable link between policy and technology – which we’re finding to be a reality as we implement Smart Grid. Without policy direction, the “technology geeks” would be innovating without direction. Without a clear understanding of technology capabilities, politicians may expect unrealistic outcomes.

At the end of the day, our job as an industry is to get together and get it right.

Other insights on deployment and acceleration

Specific to Smart Grid, panels over the last two days of GridWeek addressed critical challenges and opportunities for moving Smart Grid forward. When it comes to challenges, I see a few key themes that have emerged:

  • Lack of clear policy and regulatory direction – While there was a tremendous amount of Smart Grid policy direction under the Energy Information and Security Act of 2007, the major “question marks” facing utilities are in the areas of Renewable Portfolio Standards (RPS) and the carbon tax, according to George Arnold, national coordinator of Smart Grid interoperability, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NISTI). Mark McGranaghan, director, Smart Grid and distribution Research for the Electric Power Research Institute agreed, saying “utilities will feel handcuffed because of uncertainties in policy.”
  • A need for human resources (HR) – While about 50 percent of the utility industry is set to retire in the next decade, the need for qualified Smart Grid utility experts will become an increasingly large challenge as utilities look to roll out Smart Grid. Some panelists over the past two days referred to this as an “HR issue.” This is where I see the importance of engaging youth and young professionals in energy. At GridWeek this year, we were able to engage about 50 young professionals and college students under the age of 35 in the Smart Grid conversation.
  • Cyber security—What keeps industry experts up at night? Cyber security.  Not because we don’t have proven security technologies (think: online banking, which has thousands of daily threats), but because it will be enormously challenging to ensure that each of our nation’s 3,000 utilities and hundreds of Smart Grid vendors each employ the right security standards, technologies and practices. Any holes in the system can make the entire system vulnerable.  “We have the technical knowhow,” Arnold said, “but what we don’t have is the HR.”  In other words, it’s a people challenge.
  • Consumer engagement – While many questions emerged this week about how much consumers really need to know about Smart Grid, one message is clear – the solutions have to be consumer-centric and provide real benefits that customers will embrace.  Robin Chase, founder and CEO of Meadow Networks and co-founder and former CEO of Zipcar, discussed the importance of consumer-centric thinking. She discussed how we can never expect Smart Grid and Smart Grid technologies to take off if it appears that they’re driven by government or utilities. People don’t like mandates. The devices must have a compelling value proposition and meet multiple customer needs. She described Zipcar, which is a membership-based car-sharing service. The benefits are clear– customers don’t have to buy a car, they pay only for the amount of time they use the car (as opposed to the $8,000 per year the average person pays to have a car, regardless of how much they use it), and they have cars available to them — without reservation — in multiple cities across the world.  She asked the audience to imagine if the government had instead recommended that all people give up their cars and use this model … the likelihood of acceptance would have been pretty slim.

In addition to challenges, I am inspired by the progress we’ve made to help speed us toward Smart Grid implementation:

  • Government backing and investor support – Billions of dollars are being invested worldwide to provide us with living Smart Grid laboratories that we can learn from. The key is to share what we learn.
  • Rapid standards development – While it may seem that we can’t get standards in place fast enough, Smart Grid standards development is progressing twice as fast as the telecom industry, much thanks to the efforts of NIST’s Smart Grid Interoperability Panel.
  • Interest – Judging from the sheer participation in this year’s GridWeek – about 1,400 attendees – I am encouraged by the amount of interest and momentum this industry continues to attract. I know it will only grow.

Ultimately, I believe it is the spirit of collaboration and entrepreneurship that will drive us forward. If GridWeek 2010 is any indication, we’re well on our way. We have the technology, we have the enthusiasm, and we are developing the partnerships that will drive long-term innovation and growth.

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