Are We Rushing the Smart Grid?

That was the interesting title of an article by Dick DeBasio, Chair of the IEEE 2030 Smart Grid Working Group.  That is the group tasked with developing the interoperability standards for the grid.  It has been a tedious slog for them and it must feel like little progress is being made.

FERC recently rejected a proposed order adopted several interoperability standards proposed by the National Institute of Standards & Technology claiming the commissioners did not feel there was yet a solid consensus on the standard and it was too soon for FERC to act on them.

But now comes this essay by DeBlasio that says we are rushing the smart grid process and not spending enough time on the visioning of our smart grid future before we start demanding benefits.

“Some of the smart grid’s most powerful benefits — reducing carbon footprint, costs and likelihood of blackouts — demand growing into a model of two-way power flow, increased deployment of energy-storage technologies and accommodation of more varied sources of energy.

The historical, sharply contrasted definitions of power generation and consumption are blurred in the long-term vision of a significantly more robust, next-generation facility for electricity delivery. A traditional power consumer would also be capable of storing and/or generating power, and feeding it seamlessly back to the grid.

But in the rush to deliver immediately on the smart grid’s promise, this revolutionary element of the long-term vision is being underemphasized. And now is not the time to settle for a non-optimized smart grid course.”

It is tough to argue with the need for a clear long term vision of smart grid before we try to build it.  But that did not stop the Federal Government from stimulating the deployment of millions of smart meters and urging the State Regulatory Commissions to pass on part of the cost of smart grid development to customers now in rates.  Utilities are stuck in the middle ordered to deploy smart meters while being ordered to hold down rate increases.  That desire for vision is not stopping the frenzied building of renewable energy resources both in load centers and remote that need to be integrated.  Nor did the Courts care about the vision when they rejected US DOE’s 2007 and 2009 Congestion Studies and the National Interest Electric Transmission Corridors that laid out a roadmap for the macro-grid issues we face in living into that smart grid future.

Customers facing rate increases ask “what’s in this for me?”

Smart grid is at a watershed point in its evolution.  We soon will have a lot of smart meters playing dumb because our policy makers have not figured out what to do with them and when.  The truth is the near term benefits from smart meters and the promise of smart grid will accrue mostly to utilities in the form of lower labor costs from meter reading and the potential for lower operating costs from efficiency and performance improvement in distribution automation, voltage control and other operating tweaks that make the local distribution system perform better.

These savings are good and we should take them, but they are not sufficient to get us to the smart grid promised land and not worth allocating so much of the cost of the smart meters by themselves to ratepayers.  Utilities should use this time to exploit every opportunity they have to improve the performance of their distribution systems for the distributed energy future ahead.  The work of DeBasio’s group is important to that future but time is not their ally in moving the process of getting agreement on interoperability standards along.

Getting to the smart grid finish line may indeed be a marathon not a sprint—but the clock is still running and the money is going to run out along with customer patience if we don’t see steady results.

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