How Utilities Can Bridge the Gap Between Technology and Customer Education

This week’s guest author is Juliet Shavit, President and CEO of SmartMark Communications and SmartEnergy IP™. There’s an important link between Smart Grid technologies and customers, and more utilities are catching on to its value as a long-term, sustainable model.

What role does the customer play in a technology deployment? That is the question the utilities industry has been tackling over the last decade as the crusade to upgrade the country’s electrical infrastructure has developed into a reality.

Early AMI deployments had utilities focused largely on technology installations. If they could get the meters installed and create an optimized two-way communications network that included smart meters, sensors, etc., there was seemingly no room or need to think about the customer …

Until the first unexpectedly high bills began to hit customers after the initial smart meter deployment.

Until the first deployment caused such an uproar in the industry that the need arose to re-examine a utility’s strategy around AMI customer engagement.

Until regulators started requiring a customer education plan to be filed with the business case for Smart Grid investments before utilities could start installing a single meter.

Then the major shift in the industry occurred. I call it the “point of no return” when the customer became an integral part of the industry conversation.

But the role of the customer around education and communication is not just to get meters in homes and avoid backlash against the utility around AMI. The real need to invite the customer into the conversation is around behavior change. Unless customers do their part to reduce energy use, balancing the load on the grid will not be a sustainable reality. Knowledge is power, they say. An educated customer is more effective than any digital device. When customers understand the benefits of AMI and are exposed to customer-facing tools that help them manage their energy use, the control shifts to them and the message is then about customer empowerment.

The Smart Grid Customer Education Symposium on June 11 in Chicago invites utilities across the country to talk about their experiences in communicating and engaging with customers about the benefits of the Smart Grid. But, equally important, the event invites regulators and stakeholders to share their perspectives on the benefits of Smart Grid customer education.

The only way to achieve lasting success of the Smart Grid is to bridge the gap between technology and education, and talk about how advanced analytics and usage behavior will help change the way customers understand and manage their energy use.

This is the long-term sustainable model for utilities. The advanced technology is already in place to revolutionize the delivery of energy into every home and business in the country. For the continued successful transformation of the electrical grid of the past to the Smart Grid, educating customers must be as primary of an objective as the technology installation.

This is the real goal of Smart Grid customer education.


Creative Partnerships Help Build Critical Infrastructure Resiliency with Microgrids

This week’s guest authors are Christina Briggs, Economic Development Manager for the City of Fremont, California, and Vipul Gore, President and CEO of Gridscape Solutions. The microgrid solution described here points to the benefits of collaborative planning and development to build resiliency for critical infrastructure and contribute to the goals of a truly Smart City.

Cities have a significant opportunity to lead by example when it comes to innovative energy solutions. But the pot sweetens even more when sustainable energy decisions also contribute to a City’s economic development strategy. In the case of Fremont, where clean technology is considered one of its largest industry clusters, public-private partnerships can promote the testing of new technology, help its local companies scale, and identify potential sustainability measures for City operations. Here’s how Fremont and Gridscape Solutions are crafting win-win scenarios.

The City of Fremont and Gridscape Solutions are teaming up to pursue a California Energy Commission (CEC) Electric Program Investment Charge (EPIC) opportunity. This state program funds technology demonstrations of reliably integrating energy efficient demand-side resources, distributed clean energy generation and smart grid components to protect and enable energy-smart critical facilities. This follows on a previously successful collaborative effort where Gridscape Solutions assembled a consortium of partners for a city EV charging infrastructure project, including the Fremont Chamber of Commerce, Prologis, Delta Products, and the City of Fremont.

The proposed project consists of deploying a microgrid at three fire stations within the City of Fremont. The close proximity of Hayward Fault line to these Fire Stations, the maximum load capacity on the transmission line, and the need to reduce grid dependency satisfy the most important grant requirements of providing energy savings, increasing electrical infrastructure resiliency, reducing carbon dioxide emissions and demonstrating islanding from the grid for up to three hours. Using the combination of renewable generation and battery technologies, the microgrid project could save the City of Fremont approximately $10,440 per each fire station and reduce CO2 emissions by 22,176 pounds per station per year.

The proposed microgrid design will provide at least three hours a day of power to the fire station in the event of a utility outage. The microgrid is also capable of responding to signals to proactively and seamlessly disconnect from the grid by using state-of-the-art microgrid controls, and advanced load controls. The implementation of the microgrid also serves to balance PV generation supply, efficient energy storage and campus loads to achieve the City of Fremont’s net zero energy goals by maximizing PV electrical energy usage behind the meter. During a utility outage, the power distribution may be isolated from the utility at the point of service by a microgrid inter-tie protection relay.

The primary goals of the project are:

  • Island for up to three hours by disconnecting from grid
  • Reduce energy costs and CO2 emissions
  • Improve resiliency and reliability of fire station infrastructure using microgrid
  • Deliver the highest value to ratepayers and the utility by optimal configuration
  • Demonstrate innovation and environmental stewardship through the deployment of energy usage dashboards to the City of Fremont or CEC systems.

The priority status cities place on these facilities, combined with the tremendous innovation and market opportunity for companies in this space creates a win-win scenario. When cities leverage industry expertise in their own backyards, society stands to benefit.


The Animal Farm of Things

This week’s guest author is Chris Kotting, a Consulting Director at SGL Partners. His insightful compare and contrast of the Smart Grid and the Internet of Things raises important discussion points.

I’m prone to literary and cinematic allusions, sometimes those allusions are obscure, or at odd angles to the main topic, so for those of you who are confused already, bear with me.

I have been immersed increasingly in the Internet of Things discussion, and trying to understand how it relates to Smart Grid and specifically Demand Response. Since Demand Response requires information connectivity, it appears, on the surface at least, as though there is a natural convergence there. Appearances can be deceiving.

Most people, even those who have never read the book and don’t know the source of the statement, know at least one sentence from George Orwell’s Animal Farm:

All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.

In the Internet of Things discussion, the same kind of reality has struck me in recent weeks:

In the Internet of Things, all things are equal, but some things are more equal than others.

What do I mean by that? Most of the things being discussed in the IoT world have some common characteristics:

  • They are generally small.
  • They are generally intended to be portable.
  • They are generally low-power draw.
  • They are generally relatively luxury items.
  • They have high “gee whiz” or “Oooooooh, Shiny” factor.
  • They have an entertainment orientation or angle.
  • They can tolerate (indeed, the business models often require) high turnover.
  • They are designed for constant interaction.
  • A lack of reliability is tolerable. (Grandma won’t die if the web browser on her tablet fails.)

This is where there is a disconnect between the worlds of the Internet of Things and Demand Response. What are the common factors in what makes a Thing a “Demand Response Thing.”

  • They are generally large.
  • They are generally stationary.
  • They are generally high-power draw.
  • They are generally in all households (or at least very many).
  • They have zero “gee whiz” or “Oooooooh, Shiny” factor.
  • They are utilitarian, with little or no entertainment value.
  • They can serve a single buyer for 15 – 25 years (and often more).
  • They are designed to be pretty much left alone once installed.
  • Reliability is more important. (If the A/C quits on a hot summer day, Grandma could well die.)

Let’s face it, we use the term “appliance” to mean something that you install and ignore.[1]

So, in nearly every way that matters, an “IoT Thing” is different from a “DR Thing.” So where is the convergence? The convergence comes where your “DR Things” need to coordinate with your “IoThings” and use the network that is common in the home, whatever that is. This is going to mean some commonality between the worlds of “things”.


  • with the IoT world being “high turnover” and the DR world being “low turnover” there is a good chance that some upgrade somewhere along the way will break that coordination. You can do firmware upgrades, but if the fundamental communication platform changes, firmware won’t fix it.
  • Not everything in the IoT universe is using the same kind of network. Look at what Lowes has to go through to cobble together their Iris system. Note that they had to build a complete testing and certification capability for Iris, covering 3 completely different protocols. It reminds me of a line from the Nicholas Cage / Tommy Lee Jones flick Firebirds:[2]
    • Cage: I’m doing it!
    • Jones: But it’s ugly.

What is needed for the Internet of DR Things is a way to make a product that can sit there being ignored for 25 years, while communications technologies change, and still be able to communicate with whatever is in the home at the time.

A lot of people point to WiFi as a solution, since the WiFi Alliance has been careful about backward compatibility. There are problems with that backward compatibility, which I explain elsewhere. The hitch is that the backward compatibility comes at a price.

So, how does the manufacturer of a long-life device make sure that it can keep talking and listening in an IoT world of rapid turnover and changing technologies? Simple: Make it modular.

For those of you not old enough to remember when WiFi was a new thing and people kept computers more than a year or two, laptop computers all had a standard PCMCIA port. When you needed to connect to a network, you plugged in the right modular card, from any manufacturer, over any protocol, and off you went.

We can do the same thing for our long-lived DRThings. There’s a standard for that, you know….



[1]    I was discussing this article with someone at a conference as I was writing it, and he made a good point: The future of the Internet of Things may be less interaction. Rather than controlling everything with your phone, your home will pretty much know what you want without being told. Everything will act more like an appliance. (For you Star Trek: Next Generation fans, think of Jean-Luc saying “Tea” and the computer knowing that he wants “Earl Grey, Hot” rather than him having to specify it. Every. Single. Time.)

[2]    The big tension in this movie is that Cage’s character is right handed, but left-eye dominant, which makes his eyeballs incompatible with the HUD in an Apache helicopter, which shows all vital information in the right eye, making this a more apt analogy than it seems at first.


The Overlooked Consumer in Smart Grid

Andy Zetlan, a consulting director at SGL Partners, is the guest author of this great article about consumers and lessons that utilities can learn from product and service providers in adjacent business sectors.

As we have seen in recent reports, investment in Smart Grid technologies continues to grow world-wide, with continued advances in the deployment of smart metering and analytics delivers benefits to utilities. Utilities are seeing levels of benefit in return for these investments, in the enhancement of grid operations, more accurate billing, correcting for lost revenues, and other material issues. Engaging consumers, however, continues to take a back seat in priority in many utility projects.

According to the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC) where I have previously served as a Board member,

“… Surveys illustrate that there is high consumer interest in electric utility energy programs. For example, three out of five respondents stated that they would likely participate in a critical peak rebate program. Additionally, one-fourth to almost half of consumers interviewed in the survey say they would be likely to participate in three other pricing programs – time-of-use, demand response and critical peak pricing plans – that were tested in the survey.”

The SGCC goes on to say that consumers really are interested in new pricing plans and service options, and understand that the technology might lead to improved reliability, reduced environmental impact, and lower costs. Lastly, the survey indicated that consumers prefer simple solutions that leave the consumer in charge of household energy management.

Are utilities ready for this? Some have taken good steps forward, but for the most part, utilities are still catching up to other industries in understanding how to support an “Internet of Things” approach to its consumers. Instead, consumers are turning to off-the-shelf solutions and competitive solutions to start down the road to self-determination around energy, but continue to be more disconnected from their utilities except to review their consumption and review possible rate approaches off-line.

Further, the existing solutions don’t yet meet the “simple” rule, although progress is being made. Future announcements from industry leaders such as Google and Apple suggest a new focus on this, and we would hope that utilities would understand and push towards a more integrated posture to make it a solution, and not just a new consumer product. We should understand that consumers also want the positive reinforcement of their actions in supporting the objectives of their investment thinking … that of contributing towards reliability improvement, environmental mitigation, and cost reduction.

There are solutions out there, but there is also confusion. Utilities aren’t always leading here, but catching up to other vendors (think Nest and others), and service providers (think ADT and Comcast) that are already gaining traction. Where will complete solutions come from that meet the need for simple and strong feedback that consumers understand? The answers are not clear yet, but the need most certainly is.


How Nanotechnologies will Disrupt the Electrical Grid

Is it just me, or is the pace of technology innovation speeding up for you too? Acceleration is certainly evident in nanotechnology R&D. Back in December 2014 I wrote two blogs that updated my 2020 predictions first published in January 2014. Nanotechnology discoveries are now occurring on almost a weekly basis. Universities have been a hotbed of scientific discoveries in material sciences. Consider the recent news that graphene, a particularly interesting nanomaterial and photons. A photon is a unit of electromagnetic radiation that has energy but not an electrical charge. To the naked human eye, photons are sunshine. Research in Switzerland revealed that graphene can take one photon and make multiple electrons. This is what today’s solar panels do – convert photons into electrons. But graphene has a multiplier effect, with the potential to boost existing best case conversion rates from 32% to 60%.

While this announcement addresses research results, commercialization won’t be far behind, and we’ll soon be reading about new solar panels that leverage graphene materials to increase harvestability of solar potential. Other research advances focused on making solar harvesting materials more flexible.   What do these research announcements mean? Here are three key points. Solar panels, like microprocessors, will shrink in size and increase in power. Second, areas that have marginal value for solar generation will get a second look as panels improve in their productivity and their flexibility to be adhered to non-traditional surfaces. Third, distributed energy resource (DER) momentum grows as a result as more rooftops, landscapes, and other building surfaces harvest solar energy and proliferate in distribution grids.Gr

Other nano research is concluding that a little stress can be a good thing for silicon crystals known as quantum dots. Around the time of the 1973 energy crisis, the popular saying was “small is beautiful”. In at least some research labs around the world, the new saying could be “small and stressed is beautiful”. One commercial application possibility focuses again on improving the energy harvestability of solar panels made from silicon. However, there’s also interest in how these nanocrystal reactions can increase the charge/discharge cycles of batteries, improve computer displays, and decrease power consumption.

Are investors paying attention? Graphene has been dubbed the “wonder material”, and big players like IBM and Samsung have been allocating money and resources into it.  China has filed more patents involving graphene than any other country. One of the first commercial applications of graphene research is a light bulb that improves on the energy efficiency of LED bulb technologies. Once these new bulbs are available later this year, investors who have been hanging back will be looking for other commercialization opportunities.

From a Smart Grid perspective, graphene has exciting application potential in energy harvesting, energy storage, and even energy consumption, specifically reductions in waste heat. It’s a rapidly innovating area of materials science research that will be the foundation for disruptive technologies integrated into the electric grid. The dual impacts of these disruptors will be to increase the amount of electricity generated by DER assets and reduce electricity consumption as devices become more energy efficient. The speed at which R&D in graphene and other nanomaterials is advancing to commercialization may blast past my predictions of overall progress by 2020.