What’s Worse for the Smart Grid – Failures of Imagination or Failures of Communication?
The history of innovations, whether these are in technology, policy, or in how people themselves upgrade attitudes or behaviors, offers resounding proof of a basic flaw in arguments that naysayers constantly winge about solar, wind, energy storage and other Smart Grid innovations. They presume a static world where innovation trendlines don’t exist and change doesn’t happen. O ye naysayers of little faith, and even less appreciation of history and human imagination. In the naysayers’ alternate universe, Edison would not have commercialized the carbon filament incandescent lightbulb and we’d still be using gas lights. Edison himself said that he knew a thousand ways to not make a light bulb – acknowledging the iterative, knowledge-building process that led to his eventual commercial success. Even today, the light bulb describes brilliant ideas – the pictorial equivalent of Archimedes shouting “Eureka!” in an ancient Greek city. Whether it’s policy, technology, or people-oriented, innovation happens.
The Smart Grid aggregates a number of game-changing innovations to our existing electrical grid. It enables the integration of renewable energy generation, energy storage, and new consumer participation to create markets for kilowatt and negawatt sales. It can radically re-configure the value chain and put renewable generation at points of consumption. It can enhance and improve operational efficiencies and decision-making for electricity generation, transmission, distribution and consumption. The Smart Grid can become more reliable as well as resilient, improving annual uptime and measuring average downtime (outages) in minutes rather than hours. It can change our energy fuel mix so we can eliminate the massive transfers of capital to regimes that want to kill us and to corporations that poison our environment.
These possibilities could take longer to realize because of failures of imagination – but innovation progress, like water, flows where it will. But the benefits that grid modernization can bring to us are imperiled by business sector failures in communications. The sector (utilities, vendors, policy makers) has not focused on setting Smart Grid project expectations with the most important stakeholders -electricity consumers. Not the regulators, not the stockholders. The consumers matter the most for Smart Grid initiatives because they are voters, taxpayers, and ratepayers. And if we don’t gain their support for grid modernization projects, we all lose in terms of economic and energy security.
From the typical consumer’s perspective, the Smart Grid is all about smart meters. They don’t see the large scale infrastructure upgrades to transmission systems to deliver realtime situational awareness and avoid massive blackouts. They are blissfully unaware of distribution automation projects that improve equipment maintenance and reduce outages. But smart meters have visibility to consumers. And for most consumers, these meters aren’t delivering new value to them NOW. The Green Button initiative is a start in the right direction to deliver electricity usage data to consumers, but for those of us who have had smart meters since 2009, getting data now is truly delayed gratification. (And for the anti-smart meter crowd – spoiler alert – my smart electric and gas meters have not increased my bills, damaged my health, or invaded my privacy.)
It shouldn’t be this way. Telling stories through analogies is a great way to deliver effective messaging. Most everyone can relate to a home construction project. It takes time from construction start to move-in date. Smart meters lay the Smart Grid foundation for a range of benefits that consumers will ultimately enjoy, but it will take time and a number of intermediate steps to realize all of them. Utilities need to develop and exercise multiple channels of communication that deliver consistent and layered messages to educate and enlighten consumers about the economic and energy security benefits that a Smart Grid delivers. On a national level, failures to communicate Smart Grid payoffs to Americans could result in a second-rate electrical grid infrastructure and reliance on extractive energy sources that imperil our future as a superpower. That’s a future we don’t want to imagine.
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