Looking forward to the day smart grid dies

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Elisa WoodBy Elisa Wood
May 25, 2011

The title of this blog might strike you as kind of weird, especially this week. After all, the Electric Power Research Institute made the news with a study showing that smart grid is going to be far bigger than we first thought.

Smart grid in simplest terms brings to the electrical grid the digital intelligence of computers and the Internet. Just seven years ago EPRI expected smartening the grid to cost $165 billion.  But its new report says that the 20-year investment may be nearly three times as high, $476 billion. That’s a lot of new business for utilities, information technology companies, smart grid vendors, engineering firms, demand response providers, and the myriad of other enterprises that can help with this massive rebuild and reboot of the US power system.

Most important, the benefits to society will far outweigh the costs, possibly amounting to $2.028 trillion, EPRI says. To put that in perspective, if we do not smarten the grid, the average electric bill will probably rise by 400 percent over the next two decades; if we do, it will likely go up by only 50 percent, according to Clark Gellings, EPRI fellow, quoted in a Fox News article.

Smart grid will bring enormous efficiency and new function to the way we generate, distribute and use electricity. I won’t go into details here but imagine (if you are old enough) the capabilities of today’s home computers compared with the typewriters they originally replaced. That’s the kind of technological leap smart grid promises for the entire electrical system.

So why has EPRI pushed up its estimate of smart grid costs? Inflation played a role. But the larger reason is that smart grid, well, just keeps getting bigger. Initially energy planners envisioned smart grid bringing better efficiency, reliability, security and other features to power production and delivery. But they’ve realized that smart grid can do a lot more than that. Smart grid can help integrate renewable energy, cut our electricity use, exploit full potential of the electric car and create new power storage opportunities.

Smart grid even appears to be paving the way for consumers to manage their energy use through energy home automation – should it take off. Skeptics say it won’t. They doubt any but hardcore conservationists or Scrooges will want to get into the nitty-gritty of aligning their home energy use with the rise and fall of power prices daily. But again, going back to the home computer analogy, the common refrain 30 to 40 years ago was that few people would bother buying a home computer. Maybe a computer would have value for writers, engineers or those with home offices. But otherwise why spend the money?  And today, of course, hardly an American is without one. Most of us did not envision how much the computers could offer us back then; we may be short-changing smart grid the same way.

So now that I’ve explained the wonders of smart grid, why do I say I look forward to its demise?

Not long ago I listened to a Green Builder Media’s webinar with Guy Kawasaki, a VC and author of Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions. Kawasaki talked about the kind of customer service and marketing that makes a business ‘enchanting.’ One word of advice, he said, is that builders should stop marketing themselves as ‘green.’ Why? Because being green, he said, is no longer a service that is above and beyond customer expectations. Its commonplace; the perception is that every builder is green or at least should be. (Note that he lives in California.)

Some day this will happen to smart grid. The big box stores will stop slapping ‘smart’ on appliances, since they will all be smart. Utilities will no longer install smart meters. Just meters. Studies will no longer appear measuring the size of the smart grid.  Its intelligence no longer an oddity, we’ll drop the ‘smart’ adjective.  When the smart grid simply is the grid, then this industry will have arrived.

See “Exporting US Energy Efficiency,” by Elisa Wood and Lisa Cohn at http://www.realenergywriters.com/products/.

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Elisa Wood About Elisa Wood

Elisa Wood is the chief editor of MicrogridKnowledge.com. She has been writing about energy for more than two decades for top industry publications. Her work also has been picked up by CNN, the New York Times, Reuters, the Wall Street Journal Online and the Washington Post.

Comments

  1. I love this and I couldn’t agree more. I’m already curious about what kind of other innovative things we’ll be praising and pushing come the day the smart grid dies.

  2. Good Grief!

    Just what we do NOT NEED! A clever and sensationalistic headline that serves only to confuse people. This clever take to write an eye catching story is a disservice to the Smart Grid Movement. Look, if the Kettle is Black, call it Black. If the grid is to be Smart then
    call it Smart and don’t confuse the vast majority of the population in the USA that has absolutely no clue what the Smart Grid is to be in the first place. This is a talented and intelligent writer who knows the industry top to bottom. Let’s just keep it straight and SIMPLE!!

  3. This is America. Smart things make people feel stupid, and unexpected things make them scared. Without a cultural sea change, common sense efforts like the smart grid will remain expensive and niche, like farmer’s markets. Mass appeal is the only way forward on EE projects. Incentivize to the extreme at first, and then let the market take over gradually.

  4. @ Walsh – lighten up, man. Ms. Wood is simply marketing her blog to the choir. I don’t think my 77 year old mother is going to look at this and start writing letters of protest to her congress people or anything.

  5. I agree with the title, only because I think we need to stop calling it the smart grid — it needs to be the way the grid is designed now — and for the future. It is the evolution of the electrical grid, and just like the phone consumers didn’t envision what the evolution of cellphones would eventually do — ala I-phone and Android — most don’t understand what services could be provided by the electric system. We need to move there. Don’t call it the smart grid, it’s just how it’s going to be done from now on.

  6. Two words: scope creep. When the scope expands, things cost more and take longer. Also, at present the potential smartness of the grid is not matched by the underlying capacity to actually generate clean power. Would you like coal or nuclear today? We can all hope that wind and solar will be cheaper and more widely deployed. The other unknown is the reliability of the physical grid to transmit power – that physical system remains highly vulnerable to weather events. My bet would be on more dispersed smaller centers (home or district?) of generation, which indeed might be somewhat coordinated by a smart system.

  7. Elisa,

    I really enjoyed this article as it was written concisely without a lot of the politcal hyperbole that so often accompanies a green topic. While the initial plan for a smart grid is long overdue and certainly a welcome change, I too am concerned with “mission creep”
    Having a smart meter installed on a home could be a constuctive thing but I am troubled by the thought that someone else, who is not paying my bill, could make a decision what is acceptable useage and reduce or cut electrical power altogther.

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