Danged if you do, danged if you don't
The overall impression I received from attending "Smart Grid Boot Camp" at the IEEE PES 2010 conference here in New Orleans was a fervent wish that I don’t get sent to the front lines.
While news of progress on the standards and interoperability front, delivered by EnerNex Chairman Erich Gunther, seemed reassuring, several speakers delivered dire warnings about the pitfalls of pursuing the smart grid.
You gotta do it, but oh man it’s gonna be difficult to grasp the end game in order to take the most efficient route, according to the panel’s speakers. And that end game is a doozy to get your arms around.
The afternoon’s most eloquent speaker, Wayne Longcore, director of architecture and standards for Consumers Energy, dubbed his talk "Smart Grid 101." But for a utility audience that is somewhat akin to Rip Van Winkle, awakening from a long slumber to the new digital marketplace, it might have been dubbed "Wakeup Call 101." (Yes, yes, the transmission system has been smart for decades, got it.)
The market – all the end users and their disparate electricity needs – will be the tail that wags the dog, according to Longcore’s view. And that means it’s increasingly likely that companies – nay, brands – at the periphery of your vision, now sometimes referred to by utility folks as "the Googles," as if there really were more than one, will soon be wagging the dog, too.
For instance, Longcore mentioned the iPhone, which today has become not just a mobile Internet device, but a symbol of disruptive technologies with unpredictable influence on human behavior and social interaction. Well, in a few years, a mobile Internet device is going to be the remote control for consumers’ homes – not just the "remote" for your critical loads such as heating and cooling, but the entire digitized home, from lighting to entertainment to cat food dispensers. And the "Googles" will be having the electric utilities for lunch. (My perspective.) Perhaps because these folks are just a little further along in data analytics.
Data analytics: the Next Big Thing, as the firehose gets turned on without proper preparation, a notion I’ve heard from many quarters recently.
I’d say partner up now or risk losing your identity and any real leverage you have over future relationships with your customers. Your consumer-level customers don’t really know you and they don’t really care. By the time you have reached out for that warm, fuzzy relationship you imagine is still yours to enjoy, consumers will have said "yes" to "the Googles."
Meanwhile, vendors are attempting to breach the castle walls, in Longcore’s view. His remark that, "if a vendor’s lips are moving, they’re probably lying," may drive home the point – caveat emptor – to utility managers. But can that really be a constructive addition to the conversation? Personally, I get the impression that many vendors (percentage of the total, of course, completely unknown) are really offering serious, bread-and-butter solutions. In fact, I know that’s true.
On the other hand, Longcore’s statement that the smart grid is only "a means of managing the sale of food to robots" certainly bears further scrutiny. Of course, all he’s saying here is that intelligence on the grid feeds electricity to the end-user devices in our homes and businesses that require it to produce useful work. But Longcore ignored that the robots will be feeding the grid, too.
In the end, the cumulative effect of all the dire warnings delivered at "Smart Grid Boot Camp" made the ensuing journey sound lengthy and fraught with peril – in short, as it probably will be.
Perhaps even longer than the walk from one end of the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center to the other, with one exception: the Morial Center’s most notorious days seem to be behind it. If all this sounds dark, you can thank the boot camp crew – and that’s what boot camp is all about, right?
Intelligent Utility Daily