Interview with Bob Saint
Bob Saint provides perspective on the unique relationship that utility cooperatives enjoy with their customers and how improved communication and trust between consumers and service providers will smooth the road to Smart Grid.
Question: What does Smart Grid mean to you?
I like to think of it as an evolution of the existing grid to include automation and technology that enables communication and data acquisition via sensors to achieve interoperability. Interoperability is the key to making the grid smart, or smarter than it is now.
Question: Having worked with the utility cooperative, what is the important message that utilities should communicate to their customers about Smart Grid?
In many cases, Smart Grid implementations have gotten a bad rap from customers because the message concerning Smart Grid has been so poorly communicated to customers by their utilities. It all boils down to developing trust and a dialogue between customers and their utility providers. Co-ops are unique because we are owned by our customers and we already have relationship with them. Our owners, members and customers have been communicating with each other for a long time.
Question: What benefits will Smart Grid bring to rural cooperatives and their consumers?
The major benefits are in the implementation of the technology and many of our members are ahead of the curve. For example, we are ahead in the implementation of automated meter reading (AMI) because it is easier for us to make a business case for automation in rural areas. This is especially true if you include things like remote disconnect, reconnect outage management and other things that save on truck rolls. Huge cost savings can be achieved by implementing Smart Grid technology in rural areas.
Smart Grid's operational efficiency means lower costs for consumers, too. That is not to say the rates are going to go down, because fuel costs are going up. But Smart Grid helps to achieve a balance between the rising cost of fuel and offers a means of holding down the cost of delivering electric power.
Question: Should consumers be concerned about security and privacy issues?
Again, it's all about trust. Utilities have always had access to information about their customers and how much power they consume. At the co-op, we have done a good job of keeping that information to ourselves and utilizing it only for our needs without letting the general public access it. We are continuing that policy with automation of our customers’ data. We need to be concerned about security and privacy, because if our members trust that we are doing the right thing, then they don’t need to be concerned.
Question: What is the "killer app" for Smart Grid?
When it comes to being cost effective and providing the biggest savings, automated meter reading is huge. That's why it has been implemented by more than half of the co-ops, many with full penetration. But there are new technologies coming on line. Outage management and work force management are really gaining momentum. To me, the idea of a self-healing system that has the ability to detect problems even before an outage occurs is the "killer app." We are right on the cusp of demonstrating some new technologies that can detect problems and fix them before they cause outages and impact customer usage.
Question: How will existing disparities in policy and regulatory environments impact Smart Grid's implementation, progress and evolution?
This is one area in which co-ops have an advantage, because most of them are not regulated by state commissions. Instead, they are controlled by a board of directors elected by the co-op's members. This gives us a lot more freedom and flexibility to do innovative things. We have to get authorization from the board of directors, but if they make bad decisions they don’t get re-elected, so they try their best to make good decisions. Another added benefit, as far as customers are concerned, is that we are non-profit organizations. Any savings realized thanks to Smart Grid or other technologies go back to the consumer.
Question: Are there any trials, pilot programs underway? If so, do you have any results from them that you can share?
NRECA and its Cooperative Research Network is involved in a demonstration project that was funded in part by the government stimulus program. We have a grant for half of the costs incurred by approximately 20 cooperatives that are involved in the project. They are doing research and demonstrating end-to-end communication from the generation source to the Independent System Operators and Regional Transmission Organizations (ISO/RTOs), to the generation and transmission grid, through the distribution grid and finally to the consumer.
This five-year project, which has been underway for about a year, aims to show that we can interoperate through all of those functions. Hopefully, it will demonstrate that end-to-end communication and interoperability of the data flow will achieve cost savings and operational efficiencies, which in turn will help to maintain reasonable costs for electric power.
Question: What one message about the Smart Grid would you want your members to know?
Because Smart Grid has gotten a lot of negative publicity in the past, we need to do a better job of communicating with customers and showing them how Smart Grid automation and the collection of more data is a benefit for the utility and for them. We need to talk about how Smart Grid will allow more choices for consumers, while the utility continues to operate, manage and maintain the grid in the best way possible to keep power flowing.