Smart grid adoption may rest on electronic design

By Lou Covey NewTechPress Editorial Director

The establishment of the smart grid is an inevitability, according to experts speaking at the Smart Power Grid Technology Conference, but depending on power utilities, government and “field of dreams marketing” will only delay it.  That’s why the latent industry needs the help of the electronic design community, according to speakers at the event put on by ISQED.

Edward Cazalet, CEO of the Cazalet Group, and Tom Tamarkin, CEO of EnergyCite, painted a picture, for 100+ design engineers at the fledgling conference, of an industry that is ready to spread nationwide save for public misunderstandings, governmental gridlock, and utility intransigence. Between the two presentations they offered a road map for the smart grid but that lacked a clear path to public acceptance.

“That’s why I’m here today,”  Cazalet concluded.  “We need your help to spread this word and identify how it can be done.”  Both entrepreneurs were looking for attendees to start looking into the potential of the smart grid for new product development, not unlike what came out of the PC industry in the 1980s.

Cazalet opened the conference with a description of the Transactive Energy Market Information Exchange (TeMIX). The exchange protocol makes it possible for energy providers and customers to buy and sell blocks of power at any time. That includes power utilities, power resellers and even customers with alternative energy systems that create more power than they need.  For example, an electric vehicle sitting in a garage after it reaches a full charge is essentially a block of power that can be utilized.  Offering that block on the exchange makes it possible for the car’s owner to sell that power to the grid.

“Any party can buy and sell power blocks to any other party,” Cazalet explained. “ Customer purchase blocks of power by subscription, paying extra if they use more than what they purchase or selling back what they don’t use.”

At present, however, that infrastructure is dependent on the connection of smart meters to the supplier’s power blocks and consuming devices.  While utilities have been under directive of federal and state governments to deploy these devices since as early as 2004, widespread distribution of the devices is still creeping along.

Tamarkin pointed out that the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) mandated the installation of smart meters by investor-owned utilities in 2004.  Southern California Edison (SCE) initiated form opposition that same year.  Tamarkin drafted and personally documents to prove the benefit to SCE in 2005, causing SCE to reverse it’s position formally and move forward on the initiative.

Tamarkin explained that the current method of billing rate payers is to provide a bill for what was consumed 90 days previous. Rate payers can only adjust their usage after the fact and hope that they are doing some good.  A completed smart grid, starting with smart meters, allows rate payers to see what their consumption is at any particular point and what they will have to pay for it.

Tamarkin likened the potential to the relationship between a car and the gas pump.  Once a consumer puts the nozzle into the tank and starts pumping, he knows exaclty what is going in the tank and how much it costs.  And the gas gauge in the car tells him exactly what his consumption rate is with some cars telling the driver if his milage is optimal.  With that knowledge and TeMIX in place, Cazalet said consumers would be able to purchase sufficient power for their needs on a just-in-time basis and utilities would better be able to predict where that energy should come from and how much to produce.

The problem, however, is the utilities have not shown much interest in completing the loop with the consuming, possibly because it doesn’t benefit them in the short run.  As Cazalet put it, “If it isn’t about generation or distribution, they don’t much care to talk about it.”

That has allowed the discussion to be directed by unknowledgeable consumer groups the base arguments against the technology on misrepresentation and isolated instances of bad installations.  For example, Joshua Hartnett , a vocal opponent of smart meter installation, based on supposed radiation issues, uses a blackberry phone that emits more radiation at Hartnett’s head than he would ever receive from a neighborhood full of smart meters. The fact that utilities and governments have been moving to correct the misrepresentations only in the past year has contributed to the lack of adoption.

Both Cazalet and Tamarkin asserted that once consumers have easy access to products that could tie into the smart grid, it would create a groundswell of demand and pressure on legislators, regulators and utilities.