Even though the US has the most reliable electric system in the world, utility companies are not schooled in real-time or two-way concepts when it comes to gathering and reporting data, nor when it comes to customer service. All of that changes with a “smart-grid” and may be the best explanation why so many smart-grid solutions stop at the meter and do not extend fully into the customer premise. Unfortunately, utilities are not prepared to “get” so much information, let alone “give” much to the customer. Over 20 million smart meters, representing 15% penetration in residential markets, have been deployed as of June, 2011 according to IEE. They forecast 65 million (50%) by 2015, at an average cost of $150-250 per household. While these numbers are significant, it will have taken 15 years to get there and even then only 6 million premises, less than 5% of the market, are expected to have energy management devices by 2015. So while the utilities will have a slightly better view of things and have greater controls and operating efficiencies, the consumer will not be engaged fully, if at all. This is the challenge of the smart-grid today.
Part of the issue is incumbent organizations--regulatory bodies, large utilities and vendors--and their desire to stick to proven approaches, while not all agreeing on what those approaches are. According to NIST, there are no fewer than 75 key standards and 11 different standards bodies and associations involved in smart-grid research and trials. The result is numerous different approaches, many of which are proprietary and expensive. As well, the industry breaks energy management within smart-grid into 2 broad categories, namely Demand Response Management (DRM or the side the utility controls) and Demand Side Management (DSM or the side the customer arguably controls), instead of just calling it “end-to-end energy management;” which is how we refer to it.
Another challenge, specifically for rural utilities is that over 60% have PLC meters, which don’t work with most of the “standard” DRM solutions in the market, necessitating an upgrade. This could actually present an opportunity for a well designed end-to-end solution that leapfrogs the current industry debate and offers a new approach. Such an approach would work-around an expensive investment upgrade of the meter AND allow DSM at the same time. After working with utilities for over 10 years, we’ve discovered that rural utilities are the most receptive to this new way of thinking, not least because they are owned by their customers and they can achieve greater operating efficiencies from end-to-end “smart” technology investment because of their widely dispersed customer base.
Ultimately the market will need low-cost, flexible end-to-end solutions to make the smart-grid pervasive and generate the expected ROI for utility and customer alike.