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The future grid: a seamless ebb and flow of supply and demand?

While the premise for one of yesterday's panels at KEMA's fourth annual leadership forum in Denver—"The Prosumer: Not Just Your Average End User"—seemed a tad archaic, that was perhaps the point. At least for the purportedly behind-the-times utilities that must now address a customer base that, as panelists pointed out, have heightened expectations for service, courtesy of nearly every digital transaction.

Utilities, take heart: nearly everyone bemoans what they perceive to be generally poor in-person customer service and stand-outs need not be exceptional, just competent and genuine. So the digital environment indeed has heightened expectations across the board. That said, utilities have catching up to do. The term "prosumer" reportedly was coined in 1980 by Alvin Toffler in his now-ancient-sounding tome, The Third Wave, and it became prevalent in the wireless telecom arena during the past decade, in my experience.

But, frankly, that was the least interesting insight of the panel, which brought some very insightful, articulate people together. I'll focus today on the comments of one panelist and return with more insights from my two days of attendance tomorrow. The panels covered a lot of ground and provided many threads for further exploration.

Audrey Zibelman, founder, president and CEO of Viridity Energy, kicked off the prosumer panel with the notion that utilities will soon find themselves managing load full-time, not just during peaks. This notion did tie in to comments on another panel that some see the grid  evolving into a fluid, ebb and flow of supply and demand, with centralized power providers interacting seamlessly with distributed generation. As we'll see, that vision appears close to full realization at the University of California San Diego (UCSD).

Byron Washom, UCSD's director of strategic energy initiatives, said that energy is the school's "largest manageable expense." Implementing a microgrid with (presumably, we'll follow this up) a variety of generation sources, UCSD generates all but 15 percent of its electricity needs and will narrow that to 10 percent this year, according to Washom.

During fires in Southern California in 2007, UCSD was able to export seven megawatts of power (a net combination of 4 MW demand response and 3 MW generation from its steam turbine) within minutes to keep its utility, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), up on its feet. And Washom said that relationship already is mutual and fluid, as in Zibelman's vision.

"We always want to remain connected to the grid for reliability," Washom said.

Despite the ambitious, apparently minimal need that UCSD has for power from SDG&E, that connection is far from trivial. UCSD's microgrid not only saves it about $800,000 per month, but provides a level of reliability that is utterly crucial. UCSD houses more than a century of ice core samples taken by the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, an arm of the school—in effect a priceless scientific repository.

"One of my top priorities is to keep the popsicles frozen," Washom said, much to the audience's amusement.

Trust me, there's more to come. Other panelists included Jim Gallagher, a freshly minted senior manager for strategic and business planning at the New York ISO, and formerly New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's top energy advisor; Glenn Steiger, general manager and CEO of Glendale Water & Power; and John Gartner, an analyst for Pike Research.

Among many topics covered, Gallagher discussed the stunning energy challenges and opportunities inherent in one of the world's major cities. Steiger talked about his utility's smart grid initiatives and what it's like having Disney, Pixar and DreamWorks in his service territory, which is buffeted by earthquakes, fires and mudslides. And Gartner offered insights into how accommodating electric vehicles can benefit utilities. Plus comments on security, scale and, oh yeah, prosumers.

See you here tomorrow!


"What we do around data ... will drive fortunes," Hugo van Nispen, president and managing director, KEMA, June 8, 2011, Denver, Colo.

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily




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