Smart Grid Benefits May Require Strings, Industry Reps Say

SAN MATEO, Calif., May 12th, 2009 – Implementing a smart electrical grid could save consumers money while allowing utilities to better serve their customers, a panel of industry representatives said Tuesday during a round-table discussion at the Tech Policy Summit.

SAN MATEO, Calif., May 12th, 2009 – While implementing a smart electrical grid could save consumers money and allow utilities to better serve their customers, interoperability among utilities and between states requires a careful approach, industry representatives said Tuesday at a round table session of the Tech Policy Summit.

Utilities can benefit from upgrading to a smart grid because such systems transmit more detailed usage than traditional meters, said Trilliant chief solutions Officer Eric Miller. In particular, service disruptions can be minimized if crews can automatically be notified when outages occur — and where, he said.

The same technology can let customers better track their own usage patterns, said ZigBee Alliance Vice Chairman Adrian Tuck.  Detailed information can help users curtail their use and save energy during peak demand periods, when prices are highest, he said. Informed consumers could possibly, on average, save 15 percent on their monthly electricity bill, Tuck suggested.

Appliances — not meters — hold even more promise for consumer savings, said Bryan Seal, chief smart grid strategy officer at SmartSynch. Household appliances equipped to run on the smart grid are a key element, said eMeter Corporation chief strategy officer Chris King. But for consumers to make use of new energy-saving  features, they must be designed to be “set it and forget it,” King said.

Well-designed smart grid compatible appliances could react automatically to reduce usage and save consumers money, Tuck said.   As an example, he suggested  a dryer could be programmed to lower its temperature  during peak demand hours, resulting in increased savings.

Adoption of plug-in hybrid vehicles — a major plank in President Obama’s energy independence strategy — could be hastened by a smart grid system, King said. A properly configured grid could allow the vehicles, which he compared to a small house in terms of power needs, to draw power from renewable sources, if available, to handle the extra demand without forcing prices up, he said.

But California Public Utilities Commissioner Rachelle Chong, who moderated the discussion, noted using wind and solar means developing storage solutions for times when “the wind’s not blowing and the sun’s not shining.”  The system would have to recognize such conditions to be able to tap those reserves, she said.

Interoperability between utilities will be a major factor in accelerating adoption, the panelists agreed. The National Institute for Standards and Technology has been charged with developing protocols to allow utilities to talk to each other in forming a national smart grid. Chong noted that there is no federal authority to compel compliance with any standard, but state public utility commissions could take the issue head on, as California has done.

Chong, who represents California on the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners Smart Grid Task Force suggested the key to getting states to adopt  federal smart grid guidelines will be money.

The solution, Chong said, may resemble other federal initatives to compel state guidance with a standard Congress would ordinarily have no authority to promulgate. Much like the strings attached to federal highway funding, Chong suggested states wanting to upgrade their grids with federal dollars will have to adopt the federal interoperability standards.

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