Smart Grid And The Consumer
By Erich W. Gunther, IEEE Fellow and Chairman and CTO EnerNex
Smart Grid technology is important, but educating the public about what it does and how it can help them is critical. Utilities need to ensure that their investors and their customers understand that Smart Grid is neither a luxury nor a science experiment. All should be made aware that the purpose of Smart Grid is to minimize the cost of energy as we move forward by giving us the time we need to replace our aging infrastructure, which is already failing in some places.
To understand these concepts, however, consumers must grasp the basics of how energy is delivered to their homes and businesses. The better they understand that process, the more they will be able to take a direct and interactive role in their own energy futures via Smart Grid.
As a first step, utilities are modernizing the existing grid by installing modern metering equipment and infrastructure - smart meters – to replace the decades old analog technology in place today. These devices enable consumers to see exactly how much energy they are consuming in real time and make adjustments accordingly. Today consumers buy their energy in a manner that seems strange in comparison to the way they buy almost everything else. Few people would think of going into the grocery store without any idea of what is or isn’t on sale and filling up their carts with items that had no prices, and then paying for everything upon receiving one big bill that comes at the end of the month.
With Smart Grid and smart meters, consumers can start buying energy like they buy everything else –knowing what it costs and being aware of when it costs more and when it costs less. With that awareness comes the ability to control how much energy they use. This should significantly reduce the amount of energy they consume and enable consumers to keep costs as low as possible as prices increase over time. Therefore, it is very important for consumers to understand that if we don’t have Smart Grid it will be very difficult for them to manage their energy use and the associated costs.
Safe and secure
The information that smart meters gather and provide are what make cost control and energy management possible. Therefore, privacy and security issues also are just as important as technical and educational issues. The good news is that much work has already been done to understand how to provide and manage privacy and security for people using the world’s existing communications networks. The technology needed to support these important components of safe and secure service, as well as the policies and necessary regulations, have been put into place. While Smart Grid is new, privacy and security concerns are not, and utilities have the tools and rules necessary to establish and maintain the comfort level that consumers have come to expect from all of their infrastructure providers.
However, because it is still so new to them, consumers still have misconceptions about Smart Grid. Some people believe that Smart Grid can harm them, control them or cost them more money. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our industry is not the first to face these kinds of charges by people whose motives are difficult to discern. Fortunately, today’s consumers are very astute and they increasingly take the initiative to educate themselves on the things that they consume including food, healthcare, phone service and broadband service. They will do the same with Smart Grid and their energy providers.
The utilities themselves are an excellent source of information for consumers, but today’s consumers require information that comes from a multiple resources. The more trusted resources they are able to consult, they better they will be able to discern fact from fiction. Consumer groups that understand Smart Grid technology and grid modernization are stepping up to help provide consumers with the information they need to understand Smart Grid and how it will benefit them if it is deployed and how it will limit them if it is not installed by the utilities that serve them.
Right now, our mantra is education, education, education. If utilities and consumer groups are able to help consumers understand how Smart Grid will benefit them personally, the rest will be easy in comparison.
Erich Gunther is a member of the IEEE PES Governing Board, the IEEE Smart Grid Steering Committee, Chairman Emeritus of the Department of Energy’s (DOE) GridWise Architecture Council, Chairman of the Board of the Utility Communication Architecture International Users Group, and Chairman & Chief Technology Officer of EnerNex.