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Consumer engagement, and electronics

The annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas offers some instructive opportunities to compare and contrast that world with the power industry.

First, the CES is an orgy of shiny gadgets and gi-normous televisions. Honestly, once televisions become wall-sized, the only advancement possible is to actually shove the viewer out onto the hockey rink and cudgel him with a stick. Why merely watch the game when you can deliver and receive virtual body blows? Oh, it's coming, folks. Just mix gaming and 3-D-motion-sensitive body suits and live events and you're there. Presuming you want to be. I'd give it five years, tops. Fantasy football? Show me what you can do with that left-handed shot-put and a football, okay?

I digress. Only slightly. Consumer electronics operate on an annual, sometimes semi-annual basis, with new developments expected and delivered on par with fashion accessories, which they've become. The power industry, as we all know, must operate on much longer timeframes and style be damned. It's about functionality around high voltages. Except when you reach the utility-customer interface, where these two disparate worlds meet. The power industry talks about "customer engagement" like Sisyphus mentioned his favorite boulder. CES draws 100,000 people like zombies drawn by a midnight incantation.

Could there be any symbiosis between two worlds with such different drivers, cultures and trajectories?

Well, it's already happening. We remarked upon it last year in "Smart Grid Consumers Up for Grabs?"  and "The Smart Grid ... at the Consumer Electronics Show." The question for the power industry is how to leverage any commonalities to its immediate needs. A quick look at some of the CES offerings relevant to our theme—from a safe distance—will reveal a few nascent trends.

With the hype around and distortion of the term "green," "green energy" was never far behind. The pursuit of it makes people feel good and they may shop accordingly, even if they won't bother learning the issues and vote accordingly. So, no surprise that catchphrase is key to an evolving CES. Look for smartphones and tablets with energy apps. Smart thermostats. Plug-in electric vehicles. Smart appliances. Texas retailer Reliant Energy will demo its e-sense Smart Energy Solutions, which claims to connect meters and value. And NRG (parent of Reliant) will demo—take note of this leveraging of language—the "largest gadget ever," the Reliant "Smarter Home on Wheels." 

The consumer electronics world is ready, able and willing to innovate because it understands—at least since Apple combined touchscreens with user-friendly applications—people and their desire for fun, convenience and control.

Sure, I understand that today's utilities might not want to engage directly in the consumer gadget business, instead pursuing interoperability and honing a few basic interactions with their customers. But the world of consumer electronics offers utilities a big lever to understand and communicate with that brave new world of customer engagement.

Uptake will take time, especially on bigger ticket items. Immediately installing CFLs makes sense; no rush to swap out the refrigerator. So those upgrades will take place over a decade or two as appliances reach the end of their useful life. But smart thermostats at, say, $100 apiece? ROI within a year? No brainer.

One possible catch to all this: Since 2007, when Steve Jobs presented the first iPhone, Apple has led the way in making its own announcements in its own venue and eschewed the cacophony that is CES. Five years later, the rest of the industry is catching on. Just as CES becomes relevant to the power industry, it's well on its way to losing cachet with innovators. Besides, making a splash as CES is expensive.

Still, this annual gadget orgy should set chins to wagging in the power industry. That is, unless the customer really is a premature creature of interest and utilities would much rather go back to work under the hood and forget the whole mess. Unfortunately, the mass deployment of smart meters and the regulatory obligations to demonstrate real value to the folks footing the bill is a genie too hyperactive to squeeze back into the bottle.

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily



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