Cleantech Open Conference on the (potentially) Smart Grid

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This is a fourth in a series of posts about the Cleantech Open Conference on July 22, 2010. The other three were:

Electric Cars? What about Trucks and ?,  Data Can Make us Greener and   Location Key to Green Buildings.

The “Smart Decision Making for a Dumb Grid” panel discussion highlights another theme of the conference–the importance of government policy in supporting green technology-based industries.

Government Support for the Smart Grid?

Jeff Byron is a regulator who complained “the space is not open to entrepreneurs” because the utilities have a monopoly. He said that we need open architecture and to allow third-parties in to get data (He called it the “Moses effect”, i.e., let my data go). Regulators and the public have to push to get more openness.

Sharon Talbott of Control4 Energy was more positive about regulators. She said that the ARRA Smart Grid Investment Grant (Stimulous funding) was helpful and that the big issue in moving toward a smart grid is consumer acceptance.

Consumer Support for the Smart Grid?

Brad Tips of Cisco said we need better observability and control/automation of the grid (sensors). We need to empower the consumer–giving them more programs to opt-in to. We have an antiquated grid structure and not a lot of standardization.

According to John Skinner, the backlash in Bakersfield shows that people have not been educated. Smart meters don’t always show the home owner the information.

Sharon Talbott said there is a report that says energy costs would have to be ten times as high for most consumers to be motivated to change consumption, so price is probably not sufficient to effect change. However, there is a spectrum of values that would motivate them to change and we need programs leveraging these values.

A questioner from the audience concurred that we need something that doesn’t require consumers to change lifestyles and behaviors. The question was whether education will be sufficient to change behavior.

However, there is some evidence that real-time read-outs do affect behavior. (Think of cars that print out gas mileage as you drive.)

Reaction to Variable Pricing or Real-time Pricing

Pricing is often a tool used to encourage people to consumer more or less of something–in this case it could be used to make electricity expensive in the afternoon and less expensive in lower-demand times. Those who want to save money would then do their laundry in the less costly time periods.

Bringing us back to the issue of how government can either support or squash the development of the smart grid, Jeff Byron, pointed out that the investor-owned utilities got a law passed that prevents dynamic pricing until 2014. He says it’s really clear that the California Energy Commission (CEC) is not really in control of the major utilities, their investors are.