Writing the future of smart grid

What's ahead for 2020?

Kate Rowland | Jun 27, 2011


"It's generally agreed that the coming decade will bring more change to our industry than we've seen in the previous century."

It was with these words that I began the cover story in this month's Intelligent Utility magazine, "Gazing into the future of the new utility." I asked a few of this industry's leading consultants and researchers to plumb their expertise and knowledge for answers about what our industry will look like, and what issues will come to the fore (or perhaps be resolved) by 2020.

Books have been written on subjects less broad in scope than the question I posed of these consultants. (One of the latest, due to be published this month, will be excerpted in the July/August issue of Intelligent Utility magazine.) But that's the kind of broad-brush look we need to be taking, and  discussing, as an industry.

Right now.

With all voices in chorus.

Here are the questions I posed:

  • What areas will see the most change in the coming decade? Will it be industry standards, cyber security, data analysis, the IT/OT convergence? Something else?
  • Is the consumer pushback we're seeing in some areas a small, sophomoric blip on the larger screen, or indicative of something we will see throughout the decade?
  • What do you think, realistically, our generation mix will look like in a decade's time? And what will our electric transmission infrastructure look like?
  • What's the big question I haven't asked, in your opinion?

The answers I received were somewhat surprising, in that each response to each question was different in focus, from one expert to the next. That confirmed for me, first and foremost, the rapid state of change we're currently experiencing in this industry.

But it also confirmed for me that, despite the hiccups, despite the blips, despite the negative consumer stories (in some states) that get a lot more play than they deserve in the popular media, there's a clear long-term vision. There's also a ton of technical and operational brilliance -- and, quite frankly, a large and encouraging measure of hope and faith -- in this industry that's going to get us where we need to go.

It's important that we continue to discuss the kernels presented within the magazine article. So, I'd like to follow up by posing the following questions:

  • What are the utility operational challenges the evolution to a smarter grid is posing? What are the best practices for handling them? What do you anticipate will challenge your utility as you move forward?
  • How quickly do you see new standards progressing? What are the current issues being faced by utilities with NERC-CIP compliance, as an example? How do you see standards issues and challenges change in the coming decade?
  • How much of a part will the country's economy play in the industry's ability to move forward?
  • If energy prices trend up, what will be the consumer response? How can utilities deal proactively with this issue?
  • The biggest change, consultants said, may be in the structure of the industry itself, right down to its very core: its staff. How do we best surmount the hurdles of a generation of retiring utility expertise?

Let's talk about these issues, both here on the Daily site, and among our peer and social media discussion groups. I'm interested in the ideas and answers, and further talk about the ideas we engender here.

Kate Rowland
Editor-in-chief, Intelligent Utility magazine
Twitter: @katerowland2

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What the Future Might Hold

I'd agree with the experts who believe the industry structure will have to change.  It's absurd to think we can build a 21st century grid on a 19th century regulatory and institutional foundation.  Technology has changed, the market is mature rather than in its infancy, and our policy priorities have changed from universal access to treating energy as a scarce resource.  No doubt the incumbents and certain consumer advocacy groups are going to fight change tooth and nail, but change is coming whether they like it or not.  Adapt and thrive, or fight the changes and wither away.

One of the changes has to be doing away with the notion of centralized solutions managed by a utility.  Utilities are experts at designing, building and operating transmission, distribution and generating facilities, but they have poor customer skills and there's an inherent conflict between pushing kWh on the one hand, and telling customers to use fewer kWh on the other.   The existing regulatory structure does not really support utilities as energy services firms, yet it is the energy services concept that will deliver the kinds of efficiency and demand management programs regulators want in order to minimize the financial and societal cost of new facilities.

Jack Ellis, Tahoe City, CA

Re: What the future might hold


I appreciate and am intrigued by your comment. You note "there's an inherent conflict between pushing kWh on the one hand, and telling customers to use fewer kWh on the other." This is a classic mismatch of capabilities, and while some utilities are shining, others are still struggling.

What would you suggest to resolve the impasse? I'd love to discuss this further with you.


hydrogen as a portable fuel

Kate, I used to be a big proponent of hydrogen cars. But a physicist took some time to explain to me why the technology will never work. It had seemed so simple before his explanation, and I loved the only by-product being water!

There are many problems with the technology. One major one is that they have been building hydrogen cars for many years now and still they are about a million dollars per car. Why? One reason is that the fuel requires much compression and a very big tank.

Now non-portable fuel cells could possibly be used as a type of "battery" backup system one day in homes. But hydrogen is simply a energy storage system. Usually gasification is the way it is produced.

Nowadays I am very sorry when I see research dollars going to pay for non-viable hydrogen cars. It is money which won't ever bring anything except money to the people who produce these never-to-be cars.

Re: hydrogen as a portable fuel

I think one of the biggest problems with hydrogen as vehicle fuel, as I understand it, is that, while it might be better for the atmosphere, it doesn't provide enough power to truly drive the vehicle. And then there are all the other problems and issues you pointed out in your comment.

But while it might not be a technology whose time is now, there are technologies currently in use that weren't viable even a decade ago. I have learned a lot about research funding that I didn't know three years ago, when I started with Energy Central, and I think trying to define viability too soon will put our industry into a too-small box. Research funding allows us to try out-of-the-box thinking. And while some ideas fail (or aren't viable for many, many years, until research and current technology evolve to the point where all of a sudden they might be after all), funded research has helped this industry get to where it is today, and continues to assist in our broad reach to the future.

Best regards, Kate