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Getting Smart About The Smart Grid

by William Laurent, William Laurent, Inc.Wednesday, July 14, 2010

With stimulus money and green energy tax breaks firmly in place, the modernization of North America’s power grid rages on full steam.  As core energy infrastructure becomes more efficient and resilient, Smart Grid meters, sensors and dashboards will soon handily penetrate many facets of our personal and business existence and become an entrenched part of our daily consciousness.

Consumers of energy around the world will be able to dynamically adjust their consumption patterns and utilize energy resources much more efficiently and intelligently than what is currently possible. Energy usage statistics will be collected by Smart Grid meters that are accessible by consumers over the internet, or by remotely enabled devices such as iPhones, PDAs, etc. Energy consumers will be able to review their patterns of usage on a real-time basis, getting up-to-the-minute data on how much energy they are devouring, down to an appliance or “home zone” minutia.  Armed with relevant usage statistics, consumers will be able to alter their use of electricity and heat in accordance with pre-published peak and non-peak demand schedules.  A new class of educated consumers will be able to better save money on their utility bills, putting off running energy hogging devices (such as clothes dryers and washers) till non-peak consumption hours.

Smart home appliances have been with us for some time now; however, they are about to become even smarter—hooking directly into the Smart Grid, self-regulating their energy consumption in order to achieve greater energy cost savings.  Although such autonomous integration with energy grids will not reach a high level of sophistication for years, semi-intelligent appliances are already on the cusp of the mainstream, allowing for users to remotely turn up or down thermostats and lighting via smartphones or other remote devices.  Homeowners can now turn off their centralized heat when they leave for work in the day, and later, when they are ready to return home, they can turn back on the heat via their iPhone so that their living space will be quite comfortable when they walk through the front door.

Utility companies usually take only one reading (mostly manual) of a home or building’s electric meter in the course of a month.  However, when the Smart Grid reaches a critical mass of users and installations, utilities will be monitoring and reporting on their customer’s consumption on a second-by-second basis.  For the Smart Grid to actualize its potential, an absolutely staggering amount of data must be captured and stored.  The volume of data that must be handled will be orders of magnitude beyond the current capabilities of utility and power companies.  They simply do not have the proper infrastructure in place now to handle such large amounts of data and they will not possess it in the future; therefore, they will have no choice but to turn to cloud computing en masse in order to leverage its colossal computing resources and massive economies of scale when it comes to provisioning software, storage, network and other infrastructure services.

Collecting and tracking energy usage patterns—and making sense of that data—will prove to be a daunting chore.  Likewise, socializing this information back to customers in a timely fashion, and in a user-friendly format, may be an even trickier proposition.  Customers will want to access their energy consumption data and control their future consumption through a number of possible devices, such as Smart Grid dashboards (that reside in their home or place of work) or Smart Grid applications (that are accessible on their BlackBerries and help appliances regulate their consumption in real time).

As would be expected, it will be the exigencies of the cloud paradigm that enables every aspect of Smart Grid functionality and future energy technology applications.  Reaping the many advantages of the cloud, coming generations of Smart Grid systems will be more open and less proprietary, with improved possibilities for the security of data and inter-system integration of data, rules and workflows.  Infrastructure architects and data architects will have their hands full figuring out how to best integrate all the data that is going to be zooming around the 21st century energy grids.

The Smart Grid will democratize the energy supply chain and demystify the procurement and production of energy.  With the Smart Grid, energy consumption should become a more collaborative affair—with a virtual partnership taking place between energy companies and consumers.  Once the new era of energy technology and Smart Grid installations catches on, a surfeit of new possibilities will emerge for businesses that are savvy enough to get “wired-in” to the grid.

There will be spectacular innovation.  We will see more and more businesses and homeowners with the ability to generate and store their own energy.  Thinking creatively for a moment: In a few years, the owners of large urban fitness centers should be able to hook up their treadmills, stationary bikes and stair machines to the Smart Grid.  Instead of burning energy, equipment users could burn calories.  Fitness buffs could be reimbursed a portion of their membership fees based on how much energy they manufacture for the gym, as networked Smart Grid meters, attached to cardio-vascular workout machines, track the kilowatt contribution of each member.  Or perhaps a smart chip located on a membership ID card could tally daily, weekly, monthly and yearly totals for each participant—just swipe, jog and rack up the “energy points.”  Such a novel idea will be sure to attract new clientele if they know that their workouts can be not only more affordable, but are assisting in achieving a more economically sustainable world. In fact, a triple-win scenario would come to light: non-polluting electricity would be generated, fitness memberships could be made more affordable, and of course calories would be getting burned and bodies made healthy.

In the not so distant future, some consumer products will carry a carbon footprint rating on their labels; but who knows, we may see the first carbon-neutral gym someday, and individuals lauded and rewarded for producing energy the old fashioned way—with their legs and arms.

About the Author

William Laurent is one of the world's leading experts in information strategy and governance. For 20 years, he has advised numerous businesses and governments on technology strategy, performance management, and best practices´┐Żacross all market sectors. William currently runs an independent consulting company that bears his name. In addition, he frequently teaches classes, publishes books and magazine articles, and lectures on various technology and business topics worldwide. As Senior Contributing Author for Dashboard Insight, he would enjoy your comments at wlaurent@williamlaurent.com

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