The "last mile" of a smarter grid
Sending another issue of Intelligent Utility magazine off to the printer often offers the opportunity for reflection. As the July/August 2012 issue went to press, I realized that we are just two issues away from completing our fourth year covering the journey this evolving industry is taking.
Electric utilities large and small have taken major steps forward in the past three and a half years. In our first issue of 2009, there was a lot of discussion about "moving from vision to reality," "changing business processes, planning systems and adding customer involvement" and moving away from operational and business silos.
"The important thing," one of our premier articles advised, "is that the organization's leadership not let intelligent utility or smart grid end up being a collection of uncoordinated technology projects built in silos."
By the end of October 2009, after what seemed an interminable wait, the U.S. Department of Energy finally announced the winners of the government's Smart Grid Investment Grants (SGIG) in what was termed by President Obama's assistant for energy and change, Carol Browner, as "the largest ever investment in the smart grid," or 3.4 billion U.S. government dollars matched equally by private investment. (Other grant programs brought that number up to $4.5 billion in ensuing months.)
One hundred projects were given the D.O.E. nod for SGIP funding, or one in four project applications, and smart meter project awards were front-and-center in the SGIP announcements. A number in the industry questioned what would happen to the 300 submitted projects not funded. Would they go ahead, or would they wither on the planning vine?
Over the past three years since, many of those projects have gone forward, some more slowly than planned, and some with a changed focus or breadth. But still, the electric utility industry continued moving ahead.
But the consumer? A look back at our pages over the past few years indicates that some consumers are dragging their heels about this journey, and have been doing so from the beginning.
By the end of 2009, consumer advocacy groups were already "expressing concerns about smart grid," with "smart grid" equalling "smart meters" in the minds of the general populace. From the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates to the AARP, consumer groups worried about price impact and the value of certain components of smart grid.
Ray Gogel, then president and CEO of Current Group, told our magazine in late 2009 that enhancing the "middle mile" between the generation source and the home had added significant value. Technology that analyzes electricity flow, for example, can increase reliability and diminish volatility by allowing utilities to pinpoint overloaded transformers and thereby avoid power outages, he said. He added, however, that the verdict on the "last mile," or from the meter into the home, is still out. For smart meters to work, he pointed out, utilities must get consumers to interact with them.
"Most of the value will come out of the middle mile," Gogel told us. "It's still too early to tell whether the 'last mile' will pay off."
In many ways, 2010 was "the year of the consumer." The electricity consumer had a new voice, and though it was the minority that was expressing itself negatively, it was an extremely vocal minority. Some would even go so far as to label it a "virus," because of the ease with which misinformation on smart meters and utility smart meter deployments began to spread.
In the meantime, there were a lot of excellent projects (both AMI and other technologies) being successfully deployed. But, other than in industry publications, these projects were virtually ignored by a rabid mainstream media, intent on giving voice to the discontented, largely uninformed customer minority.
Utilities realized early on that educating and engaging the consumer would be a prime directive. But it seems that, in the past few years, we've been, by and large, sorely behind the eight-ball in successfully doing just that.
In our September/October 2011 issue, I wrote about this problem in "The No. 1 utility challenge."
"In discussions with utility executives, consultants and vendor partners over the course of 2011,, it has become clear to me that there are certain 'sophomoric' challenges ahead for even the most technologically forward-facing electric utilities," I wrote. "(T)his challenge -- that of effectively communicating with consumers -- is the No. 1 hurdle electric utilities must clear in 2012, or their consumer-facing intelligent utility efforts will be all for naught."
I wish that I could now say, halfway through 2012, that we as an industry have succeeded in clearing that hurdle. Unfortunately, we're not there yet. Some utilities are close, and others have a long way to go.
Last weekend, I was reminded of this as I read our small community bulletin board. There, posted big and bold, was a form letter pulled from the Citizens for Safe Technology website. It begins: "I have become aware that [insert utility here] is creating an unacceptable privacy, security and safety risk for me, my home and my family, which includes risks of information theft, inability to prevent with any certainty the possible misuse of private and personal information, including the inability to prevent unauthorized intrusion, use and control."
It goes on to demand that the utility provide a "Certificate of Safety which guarantees the smart meters and grid are 100% secure and cannot be violated by any and all hackers or cyber terrorist activities."
And it states that the letter is "my legal and official notice of absolute refusal to allow installation of a wireless smart meter on my home, structures, poles or premises" unless that certificate is provided.
Yes, we've come a long way, baby, but we've still got a long way to go.
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