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IEEE: The expertise to make smart grid a reality

Interview with Cheri Warren

Cheri Warren serves as Division VII Director Elect for IEEE Board of Directors, Power & Energy and Vice President of Asset Management for National Grid where she is responsible for investing about a half a billion dollars each year on Tandy assets...

Cheri Warren explains how Smart Grid is going to touch every person on the planet in some fashion or another and provide consumers with more choice.

Question: What is your definition of Smart Grid?

Smart Grid is the next evolution of our electric system. We need to digitize it just like we have digitized everything else. Smart Grid also provides customers with a choice regarding renewables. It’s a choice about what kind of energy they use, when they use it and how they live their lives.

Physically, it is components added to our electric system that are changing the way we operate the system and the way we design it. As we put new technology out there, including sensors, increased automation and things that enable the power system to operate in bi-directional flows, we know more about what is happening and when it is happening. This allows us to unlock some of those dollars that have been embedded in our system until today.

From a customer point of view, we hope that Smart Grid will mean that consumers get lower bills than they would have received if we had not built Smart Grid. Additionally, Smart Grid enables utilities and customers to exchange energy usage information in a host of different ways. For example, elderly customers who are afraid of technology can receive a phone call. If you are a customer that is a techno wizard and you want to know what your electric devices and appliances are doing every second of the day, there is probably going to be an app for that.

Question: How does your role at National Grid intersect with Smart Grid?

My role centers around making investments in Smart Grid's electric system go a lot farther than they have ever gone before. At National Grid we launched some pilots a couple of years ago, which for many different reasons were re-launched in February. Today, we are taking a hard look at the lessons we learned in the first launch.

We are also taking a look at new technologies and new partnership models to discern which are best positioned to put Smart Grid technology in the home. We recognize that the missing link in Smart Grid has been listening to our customers. As we go to make all these different changes, people often feel like they are going to pay more money. They sit back and ask, "What does this mean to me and how does this benefit me?" At National Grid we are make an extra effort to try and listen much more closely to our customers and use what we hear to craft the elements of Smart Grid that need to go into peoples' homes.

Question: Who are the stakeholders in SmartGrid and how will they benefit from it?

There are a wide variety of stakeholders. In fact, every single person on the planet is a stakeholder in Smart Grid. Every kind of customer group from low-end customers to high-end businesses, regulators, politicians, mothers, the elderly and more. Everyone is going be touched by Smart Grid in some fashion or another. Many benefits are going to come of it, not the least of which are more jobs – green jobs. In Worcester, Mass., where we are going to do our pilot, we started looking at the asset map to determine all the strengths we already have in the community to help us start the next green revolution.

For example, a solar-powered, smart car wash was implemented by a group of folks who are doing solar power installations. They have already added 20 new, green jobs to the community. Consumers will benefit too. Smart Grid is going to put dollars back in their pockets that they wouldn't have otherwise had, and they are going to get to do other things with those dollars.

Question: What do utilities need to do differently to better understand customers' needs?

I think we are all suffering from a very systemic problem. We have been a heavily regulated industry for about 125 years. Traditionally, regulated industries are not known for their innovation and customer focus. If Smart Grid is going to be a reality, we have got to fundamentally change that relationship in a really new and creative way.

Question: How should we design the utility systems of the future and who should be involved in their design?

I think everybody should be involved. The new technique that we are going to try at National Grid comes from Dr. David Cooperrider of Case Western Reserve University. He came up with this concept of change called - "Change at the Scale of the Whole." His technique is known as Appreciative Inquiry (AI). What that means is getting representatives from all aspects of the ecosystem into a single room. In our case, this means getting students, regulators, universities, government officials, every kind of customer, utility workers etc. together in one place to do strategic planning. It sounds impossible, but Cooperrider has had numerous successes with his approach.

Another great case study is from Cleveland. In the 1960's, the Cuyahoga River caught fire because it was so full of industrial pollution. Today, Cleveland’s ambition is to be a blue sky, all green city on a blue lake with a clean river by 2019. Using the Change at the Scale of the Whole technique, the city has already built a $150 million wind turbine plant with the largest wind turbine blades in the world. City officials are hoping to put the first off-shore wind farms in the Great Lakes when they place the turbines in Lake Erie.

Question: What is the IEEE's role in Smart Grid?

There is no organization better positioned to help advance this technology and accelerate us into the future than IEEE. Its 38 societies – power, sensors, computers, communications, electric transportations, life sciences, etc. are best equipped to design Smart Grid. From the clothes we wear to the way we interact with our devices in our houses, to the energy we use to how often we're getting real time data, to how on Earth we are going to deal with all this data – all of that comes together under the IEEE. It really is the cradle of innovation.

IEEE and the Standards Association are going to get us from here to 2050. With their leadership, we can make the standards and do the things that need to be done to actually deliver and what people want and need.

Question: What economic and regulatory issues are facing Smart Grid?

I think regulators, CEOs, companies and even customers get off track when they have a very short-term focus. In the electric utility industry we put assets on the ground that are going to be there for the next 40 to 50 years. If we make decisions based on two or three years' time, we are probably not making the right long-term decisions.

Question: What are the "killer apps" for Smart Grid?

On the electric side of the house, the "killer app" is being able to manage peak load and coincident load. For example, every time your air conditioner comes on, it comes on because it thinks it needs to come on. If you could begin to save energy during peak load, there are literally billions of dollars sitting on the sideline that can be re-invested in much more intelligent ways.

When it comes to customers, I'm not sure I know what the "killer app" is, because I am such a techie and I'm so connected to all these Smart Grid types of toys. But I probably represent 3% of the population, so we have to get back to listening to customers to determine what that real "killer app" is in their eyes.

Question: What should consumers know about Smart Grid?

They need to know it's about choice, their choice. It's about the kind of energy they want to use, when they want to use it, how it fits into their lifestyle, how things might look in the future and how energy underpin will underpin the things they will be doing in the future. Twenty years ago, no one could have contemplated nearly every single person would have a cell phone and that there would be such a decline in land-line phones in people's homes. These kinds of evolutionary changes are going to happen in power.