Smart Grid Forum

Yesterday I attended a pretty interesting forum at UCLA, titled “Smart Grid Thought Leadership forum”. The program included several speakers form the industry, government / regulatory agencies and academia and has refreshed my view of the field.

There were a few memorable quotes and comments that I remember:

Commissioner Peevey was the keynote speaker and made some interesting remarks. Unfortunately, I missed most of his speech (thank you LA Traffic), but the few bits I heard cought my attention. The most interesting one was about the current rate design, and how it needs to be changed. This is a big deal – the changes, if significant, will not only impact the end customers (obviously) but they will shape the incentives for the industry as a whole, at least in California. Rate design changes can decide whether your solar panel installation is cost-effective or not, and what the savings are of buying a plug-in hybrid or an EV. (note to self: I can probably write a whole post just about this…)

A gentlement from Schneider Electric, who’s name escapes me, had an interesting speech, and really got me thinking. I guess his title of “Smart Grid Evangelist” was appropriate.

  • Smart Grid is like a Frankenstein“. Essentially, a lot of pieces of the grid were build independently. Some were installed decades ago, if not a century ago, and now we’re calling it all one thing. To me, this is not a statement meant to knock on what we have, but just to recognize that we’ve been building the US electric grid for over a century. We can’t just plug in a few smart meters and say it’s transformed (nice unintended pun there). It will take quite a bit of infrastructure investment, technology development, user engagement etc. to get it all working right.
  • “Angry Birds is activated (played) 500 million times a day”, while very few people check their energy usage daily. Obviously, there is something a game has (fun factor?) that doing a small bit to save $$ and environment doesn’t. This really zeroed in on the customer engagement piece for me, an issue commissioner Peevey highlighted as well. Maybe a good business idea would be to make energy saving / management into a game? I’m not sure how to tie Angry Birds into it, but maybe some sort of Sims game could? Make it more competitive and social, and challenge your friends on who can save more? The “social” part brings me to the next point:
  • People want recognition for being “green”. The example this speaker brought up was the Toyota Prius sales vs. Honda Civic hybrid. I didn’t fact-check his statement, but he mentioned that the two vehicles have virtually identical specs and features, yet the Prius outsold the Civic hybrid by 9 to 1!! Even if there are some performance and price differences, this discrepancy is hard to explain – so the explanation he offered is that a Prius makes a clear statement that you are different. You have a car that is obviously a hybrid, and therefore you get the “green” credit for it from your peers, neighbors and fellow drivers. A Civic hybrid has a small sticker on the back, which most people don’t notice. I think this recognition piece could be leveraged by making energy management (i.e. changing your use based on price signals and/or grid conditions) more of a social activity, if not exactly a game. Maybe creating a fundraiser type program, where a portion of your energy savings goes to a school or charity of your choice – and they in turn recognize the top donors.

My overall impression is that while we’ve come a long way, there are numerous technological, business and regulatory challenges ahead – and things are not going to get any simpler soon.