On January 18, 2011, I attended a breakfast sponsored by the Energy Bar Association and the Federal Communications Bar Association where DOE’s general counsel, Scott Blake Harris, discussed two DOE reports released on October 5, 2010, on Smart Grid policy issues: Data Access and Privacy Issues Related to Smart Grid Technologies (See my blog entry of January 7, 2011 for a summary) and Communications Requirements of Smart Grid Technologies. In highlighting the need for smart grid advancements, Scott pointed out that our current electric infrastructure was created before the micro-processor. DOE has supported the cause by investing $4.5 billion dollars in smart grid issues. Of this amount, $3.5 billion were in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act grants. After the breakfast, I sat down with Scott to further discuss the issues:
Linda Evers: We’ve heard a lot about the Home Area Network and the benefits the Smart Grid is going to bring to residential customers. Can you talk about the benefits it will bring to businesses?
Scott Blake Harris: You don’t get benefits for consumers without benefitting the economy more broadly. The idea is that some Smart Grid Technologies will enable consumers to control their costs and monitor their energy usage. In doing so, consumers will be buying new devices, such as advanced electronics, which in turn will allow companies to offer new services. You will find that consumers and businesses both benefit. In addition, I think it will help all consumers, including businesses, control their energy costs and their energy usage. And as the smart grid adds intelligence to the network, you will find that power generator, transmission and distribution companies will receive will benefits as well.
Evers: 2010 was a really, really rough year for Smart Meters. In his Public Utilities Blog – PUB, Michael Burr referred to it as a “Smart Grid Smackdown.” Many electric distribution companies were forced to do additional filings to justify their Smart Meter Deployment Plans and also to address health concerns. Are there any plans to further educate the state commissions on some of these issues to possibly alleviate some of this going forward?
Harris: I don’t think anybody should be surprised that, as you roll out new technologies, a variety of questions will be asked. I also think it’s appropriate. I also think the utility sector has not had as much experience as other regulated sectors in terms of rolling out new technologies and answering all the questions that are raised by consumers and advocacy groups. So I think what we saw over the summer was not a “smack down,” but was a normal response to the roll-out of new technologies.
Moreover, although questions were raised and utilities ended up having to file more information with the State PUCs, in the end most PUCs allowed utilities to go forward with their plans. I don’t see anything terrible about the utilities having to provide additional justification to the PUCs to win public approval.
I do believe these technologies are valuable, safe and economically viable. And I don’t think anyone needs to educate PUCs or educate state decision makers. These are very bright, very capable people. They will evaluate the evidence themselves, they will find precedents and they will inform themselves about the information that is available.
Having said that, I do think there is a role for the Department of Energy and the federal government. We have just created a web portal (www.gc.energy.gov/1592.htm) where we hope to bring together states, federal agencies, utilities, telecom companies and other stakeholders. We hope this site will become a resource for decision makers to learn about “best practices” and to access information – technical and otherwise – that will be of assistance.
Evers: Finally, you and I could probably talk about the Smart Grid for several hours and still have many things left to say about it. But the general public still may have no idea what we’re talking about when we say “Smart Grid.” Even many business owners, where having real time data can certainly help them manage their expenses and perhaps even become more profitable are not as aware of the Smart Grid as they should be. Share with me your ideas on what you think can be done to better inform the public?
Harris: There are two answers to that. First of all, for a roll-out of Smart Grid technologies to take off, particularly if you are talking about from the meter into the home, consumers are going to have to be more engaged.
Second, I don’t think consumers need to fully understand the Smart Grid. For example, I will be willing to bet that right now as you interview me on your iPhone, you don’t know what portion of the spectrum you will be transmitting on when you text or make your next call. I’m reasonably sure you can’t tell me how your text messaging is different from your phone transmission, which is different from how you send or receive your e-mail. It doesn’t matter, right? You have an iPhone and use these services because they are functional and they are cool.
Evers: And I don't need to know. It works when I need it. That’s all I care about, right?
Harris: That’s right. It meets your needs, it’s fun and it can do all this great stuff. Consumers will get engaged with the Smart Grid when they get the devices and services they want and need. I believe that’s coming. I also believe regulators, and government officials like me, tend to underestimate what consumers will be interested in and how they will react. And my guess is as we look to the future of the Smart Grid and home area networks, we are underestimating what businesses will offer to consumers and how consumers will react. They will offer, I believe, the Smart Grid equivalent of an iPhone. That’s when it’ll take off in consumer consciousness.