Fear of Smart Grid Stall-Out

Cropped screenshot of Judy Garland from the tr...
Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz Image via Wikipedia

As smart meter deployment reaches saturation points across North America there is disquiet about what is next.  It all seemed too fast and too easy.  The idea of smarter power grids was seductive promising reduced line losses, more efficient integration of renewable energy, happiness, prosperity for all.  You see my point?

We’ve reached what the Gartner folks like to call in geek-speak the ‘trough of disillusionment’. That ugly place where just when we thought we could see the new world a storm blows up threatening to crash our boat on the rocks.   What’s driving it? 

There are several simple explanations for the current disquiet.  The most obvious is making the mistake of equating smart grid with smart meters.

The Federal government spent billions supporting the roll-out and deployment of smart meters during the depths of the recession in part because it was easy and visible.  In reality smart meters are the tail that is trying to wag the digital transformation going on sensor by sensor, link by link across the power grid.  But now we’re reaching the stage where millions of smart meters are installed and customers are asking “is that all there is?”

State regulators were complicit in this confusion of smart meters with smarter grid by ordering utilities to take the Federal money and ask questions later.  State regulators often had different motivations including a desire to expand the use of renewable energy from wind and solar into the supply mix or to reduce power plant emissions.

Smart grid is NOT the same thing as the clean energy economy. This co-mingling of political goals lead to the other factor driving the smart grid trough of disillusionment today.  Just because we install smart meters on the side of our houses does not mean the air will suddenly be cleaner or that solar panels will magically appear on every roof.

The smart grid trough of disillusionment is like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz who comes pleading with the Wizard to send her back to Kansas only to discover as the curtain is drawn back that the Great and Wonderful, All Powerful Oz is just a man standing at a switchboard creating a light show for dramatic effect.  Only in the case of the Smart Meter wizard, customers tend to blame that smart meter for causing their rates to spike on hot days, pushing them into a higher tier in the dynamic pricing scheme.  It’s not true but it matters little to an angry customer.

In truth the trough of smart grid disillusionment is driven by the sum of our fears revealed as the curtain is drawn back allowing us to see for the first time that our utility bills are going up and up because our politicians are piling on us their pet projects and politically-correct policies and state and federal regulators being good politicians themselves are doing what they are told.

But just as Dorothy awakens to find herself in Kansas, there is a lot of quiet work going on behind the scenes to add ‘smarts’ to the power grid after all to realize some of those promised benefits.  Some of the best opportunities will come in distribution automation that uses sensors and advanced predictive analytics to improve grid reliability, quickly identify outages, isolate the affected area before it craters the rest of the grid, and reroute load to keep the lights on or more quickly turn them back on.  Those smart meters are the source of data that will enable vendors to build programmable appliances, energy management specialists to improve the efficiency of pumps and motors, enable microgrids to create a more modular, secure and diverse power system.

There is real potential in the smart grid, but getting out of the trough of disillusionment requires escaping from the grip of politicians and regulators so that the markets can work their magic to rationalize technologies, integrate products into end to end solutions, focus on improving the customer’s bottom line rather than the politicians bragging rights.

Perversely, one of the best opportunities to see whether smart grid can perform up to our expectations may come from one of the most unexpected places—Illinois.  The circus over Commonwealth Edison of Chicago and Ameren of St Louis utility requests to deploy smart grid technologies in the Land of Lincoln led to a political contest only Chicago politicians could love. Bills were introduced and passed, Governor Quinn vetoed them, utilities doubled down on their lobbying pressure and the Legislature overturned the Governor’s veto adding ‘trailer bills’—the ways political deals are cut in Illinois—that specified specific performance metrics for utilities in implementing smart grid.  If these metrics stick they represent one of the first attempts to define acceptable performance outcomes for smart grid.

So don’t give up on smart grid yet—we can climb out of the trough of disillusionment.  But the next time you are in Springfield, Illinois go rub the nose on Abe Lincoln’s statue at his tomb for good luck (a local tradition).

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