Pondering the Smart Grid

E-mail Melanie Martella

There's been quite a bit of activity on this front recently: Microsoft has introduced its Hohm energy monitoring system, Google is planning to trot out an energy management dashboard, and IBM, Cisco, and AT&T all see dollar signs when they see the words "Smart Grid" if recent press announcements are anything to go by. Perhaps most importantly (to my mind, anyway), NIST has published the interim report, compiled by EPRI at NIST's request, to describe a framework for interoperability standards.

The "Report to NIST on the Smart Grid Interoperability Standards Roadmap" (available as a PDF on NIST's Smart Grid page) isn't a quick read at 291 pages but it is an excellent resource if you're interested in the topic. Reading it gave me new respect for the formidable task taken on by the participants in this great work. Whatever they come up with, for instance, must play nicely with legacy systems and equipment because our existing legacy infrastructure will be with us for years to come. Everyone is a stakeholder and everyone may well have different priorities. Although some participants know well one or a handful of the standards under consideration, nobody understands all of them. It must be flexible yet robust. Some parts should be controlled by users, others automated. It must be able to work with all types of energy generation and energy storage and its components must all interoperate, to name just a few of its required characteristics. Ah well. If it were easy we'd have done it by now, right?

Do I think the Smart Grid is both important and worthwhile? Yes, I do. We need to get much, much better at managing our electricity generation, transmission, and consumption. It also opens up opportunities to sensor manufacturers because central to the implementation of the Smart Grid is better monitoring wherever the electricity goes: from the generation site to the end-user in a factory or home.

I was interested to read the Channel Web article "Could Devices Like Hohm Increase Your Energy Bill?" in which the author considers, in light of Microsoft and Google entering the home energy management arena, what this could mean for consumers down the road. Namely, that heavy users could be penalized by the utilities who would, of course, have access to their usage patterns because of the Smart Grid and its two-way communications. She likens this scenario to cable companies who throttle the bandwidth available to heavy users, but I'm not sure I agree. We already pay more the more electricity we use. Would heavy users be penalized? They already are. I think that to achieve the full benefit of the Smart Grid will require the active cooperation of the users and that systems that allow them to get a better idea of how much energy they use, where, and when are an important tool to achieve greater energy efficiency. (I also fully expect my utility bill to keep going up, but that's because I'm cynical and I live in New Hampshire where electricity is pricey.) What are your thoughts about the Smart Grid?

NOTE: There won't be a newsletter next week, in honor of the 4th of July holiday here in the U.S.