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What's the smart grid buzz in 2011?

I did a lot of listening last week.

One of the most-asked questions at any industry conference, participant to participant, is "what are you hearing?" DistribuTECH was no different. The answers this time, though, were far more disparate than two years ago, at the same conference, in the same venue, when the answers were clearly "stimulus funding" and "smart meters/AMI."

Here's a peek at some of this year's most-discussed topics.


There were definite discussions centering on consumers, selling to consumers and consumer pushback. From Craig Boice, president of Boice Dunham Group, who spoke at the pre-conference Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative Symposium, came the following opening salvo. "If we look to other industries, they are all working to create customer demand," he said. "We have to come up with compelling enough products and a compelling story to create customer demand."

Terri Flora, director of corporate communications for AEP Ohio, echoed Boice, and clearly defined the challenge electric utilities are facing. "We can't think like a utility; we have to think like a Best Buy. And that's very difficult for us," she said.

This is an enormous challenge utilities have identified for themselves in the coming year, according to a new Comverge survey of utilities released during DistribuTECH. While aging infrastructure and implementing variable and dynamic pricing programs were also identified, consumer education and awareness was identified by more than 50 percent of survey participants as a consumer barrier, ranking ahead of perceived price increases and security concerns.

Technology vs. people process: getting all of it right

Communicating successfully within and across the organization is also important. "While the technology side is difficult, the people process side is even more difficult," said Dave Haak, executive director of smart grid services for Accenture. "From organizational design to process design right down to the role level, how do we communicate? The number one issue in the tech hype is `how do we communicate with the customer?' but (at all levels) it's about getting them engaged."

Data analytics

While data center strategy was discussed at last year's gathering, the discussion this year has turned firmly to data analytics.

"We strongly believe infrastructure and communications will get sorted out," said Accenture's smart grid services global managing director, David Rouls. Those utilities that can extract the data and turn it into actionable information, he added, will be well ahead of the rest.

But many utilities are still early in that process, and it's good to remember that there are two fundamental and different foci for analyzing data, Haak added. The first is real-time/operational analytics, and the second is business intelligence.

I had the opportunity to discuss this in more detail with Linda Jackman, Oracle Utilities group vice president of product strategy and management. We talked about what she described as unstructured analytics. "This is, `we don't know what we don't know,'" Jackman explained. Unstructured analytics allow a whole new dynamic to come into play that augments the pattern recognition and data mining already being done. (There will be more on this in my column next week.)

As well, Jackman told me, what many utilities are not yet putting into place is an IT infrastructure around data analytics. That, she said, is going to become a strategic necessity.

DA and DMS

Brad Williams, Oracle's vice president of industry strategy, utilities global business unit, told me that DMS (distribution management systems) are coming into the industry from two different angles: supervisory control and data acquisition and outage management. "Smart grid is bringing an exponential growth of data, and it's learning how to leverage the data to leverage performance," Williams said.

And here is where data analytics and distribution management converge. "Utilities have to demonstrate quick value to regulators and clients," he said. From storm forecast tools to transformer load management, it's a matter of looking at the analytics, then looking at some of the data "holes" and correcting bad data, and even using pattern recognition to trigger an investigation of a potential outage. It's using metering data and leveraging it for grid operations, or feeder load management, and being able to predict when it will overload.

It's not too much of a stretch, then, to look at the idea and opportunities provided by distributed DMS, or distributing intelligence in the substations. San Diego Gas & Electric is exploring this forward-looking concept, as are a handful of other utilities.

A grown-up smart grid

So, what was discussed this year? Everything. No longer is smart grid focused microscopically on smart metering, as it was but two years ago, thanks in large part to federal stimulus funding that, in my opinion, considerably skewed the balance (and focus) on the meter, and on meter data. That's only a small part of the ever-growing equation that is smart grid.

What do you think the biggest smart grid/smart energy buzz will be in 2011? I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

Kate Rowland
Intelligent Utility magazine

Twitter: @katerowland2



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