The 21st century started off with dire predictions of an electric infrastructure collapse, but 10 years later, the grid is still working. Instead of disintegration, a dynamic and robust smarter grid is taking shape. It has not been a slam dunk. There is a natural hesitation when deploying new technology. It has taken some time and education to separate rumors from facts, myth from reality and vapor from substance.

Thanks to a massive educational effort from manufacturers and professional organizations, the industry has come to grips with a smarter grid. In 2010, Siemens began a six-city cross-country smart grid tour, taking its technology directly to utilities.

In April 2010, ABB set up a smart grid distribution circuit at the IEEE Power & Energy Society Transmission and Distribution Exposition held in New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S. AREVA also had a remarkable virtual display of high-voltage DC and flexible AC transmission system smart grid equipment. Engineers and technicians were able to have hands-on time with the latest smart grid equipment

Education and Acceptance

Unfortunately, utilities have not worked as hard at educating their customers. The industry may understand the technology, but the end user does not. This is changing as utilities realize that educating and engaging customers is the long-term solution to their acceptance of smart grid evolution.

A lack of understanding on the residential customer's part has led to what is being called a “smart meter backlash”:

  • Residential customers had their electromechanical meters replaced with smart (digital) meters with no warning or preparation from the utility.

  • Monthly residential electric bills jumped — doubled or tripled in some cases — after the installation of smart meters.

  • Legal actions to stop smart meter deployments have been initiated in several cities in Northern California.

  • Residential customers in Texas petitioned the public utility commission to stop the deployment of smart meters.

As a result of the backlash, testing was performed. Utilities found that less than 1% of smart meters had any sort of mechanical problems and, accuracy-wise, the percentage was less. The technology was not the problem.

As the famous line from the 1967 film Cool Hand Luke says, “What we've got here is [a] failure to communicate.” Utilities have started adding community outreach to their smart meter deployments. To paraphrase the Department of Energy's “Smart Grid: An Introduction” report, the education of all the interested members of the public is critical to the success of the smart grid implementation.

Driving home the point, a Harris poll found that two-thirds of American electricity consumers have never heard of a smart meter. Chartwell surveyed utility customers in Canada and the United States and confirmed what the Harris poll found. Chartwell also found that of those who had heard of a smart meter, more than 10% believed the smart meter was a device to monitor their movements inside the home.

GE conducted a survey specifically asking electric consumers in the United States and Australia about their understanding of the smart grid. More than 79% of the respondents in the United States and 72% in Australia were not at all familiar with the term. Also, more than two-thirds of those claiming knowledge of the term did not know if their homes were connected to a smart grid.

On a More Positive Note

The good news is the GE survey reported that about 80% of those who had heard the term smart grid were interested in more information. They “wish” they knew more about the smart grid and how it affects them. Only 2% thought the smart grid was not a smart investment.

“We have to educate the customer,” said John McDonald, director of technology strategy and policy development for GE Digital Energy. “The customers have to understand what is taking place for the smart grid to succeed. If people don't understand something, chances are they will not participate.”

To increase knowledgeable consumers, many manufacturers are helping utilities with consumer education programs.

“Consumer education and acceptance are essential keys to unlocking the economic and societal benefits a nationwide smart grid can deliver,” stated McDonald.

A good example of this effort is GE's Smart Grid Technology Center of Excellence in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. The facility opened in 2010 with about 10,000 sq ft (929 sq m) of exhibition area. GE is planning video demonstrations and interactive displays explaining exactly what the smart grid is and why it is the future.

Gary Rackliffe, ABB's vice president of smart grid, said, “ABB introduced customer-side smart grid technology in Europe first. With the knowledge gained there, the transition in North America should be easier. ABB has also found electric customers want more information, and they want innovative technology that is intuitive, too.”

IBM announced it will invest roughly US$1 billion in energy and environment solutions. IBM's consumer research has shown that roughly 31% of residential and small commercial customers fall into the passive ratepayer category, energy consumers who are relatively uninterested in making decisions concerning energy usage. The other 69% are interested and fall into categories that run from some interest to highly motivated with specific energy-usage goals. The one-size-fits-all approach does not work in today's marketplace.

No Turning Back

The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) recently published a white paper titled “Accuracy of Digital Electric Meters.” EPRI has found the transition from the electromechanical to solid-state meter is not a choice but a necessity for utilities who intend to offer time-of-use pricing.

“Manufacturers are no longer making electromechanical meters for the North American marketplace,” said Brian Seal, senior project manager for EPRI. “There is, however, a stockpile of used electromechanical meters sitting in warehouses. There is also a market for rebuilt electromechanical meters, but there are no electromechanical meters coming off the production lines.”

Ahead of the Curve

The EPRI report also pointed out that three-phase commercial and industrial (C&I) meters were the first meters to transition to the solid-state world in the 1980s. By the 1990s, they were the norm, and those meters were a great deal more complex than today's residential digital meters. The C&I digital meters provided large C&I customers sophisticated energy-usage data, which allowed power brokers to aggregate, or combine, large commercial loads. This permitted C&I customers to purchase electricity at greatly discounted rates.

Disruptive Technology or Killer Apps

The utilities' C&I customers also were the first to make the connection between energy management and saving money on energy. They have succeeded by making energy management noninvasive and automatic to the point the C&I customers are not aware it is taking place.

Soon independent third-party companies like Verisae developed strategies for medium and smaller C&I clients to increase their energy efficiencies.

“The first step is to perform an energy audit of their client's facilities,” said Paul Hepperla, vice president of product strategy for Verisae. “We needed to identify energy consumption and the loads that are available for control.”

According to Hepperla, “On the average, the energy audits identified 80 kW to 120 kW of reductions at each facility by good management practices. Using Verisae's active energy- response software enabled clients to increase savings substantially. Verisae aggregates all of the client's facilities by web-based technology to track energy consumption and control their loads in real time.”

Disruptive Technology or Killer Apps

The C&I sector did not wait for utilities to develop energy management programs, and there is a good chance the residential sector will not, either. Google's energy tool PowerMeter is poised to either be independent of utilities or partner with them. It is a competitive environment. Once customers realize the data is theirs, competition will drive the issue as it has in so many other industries. After all, PowerMeter is a free opt-in service that gathers information from residential smart meters — Itron is a partner with Google — and other in-home energy management hardware. The consumer can see real-time electricity usage data over the Internet.

As of mid-2010, Google had partnerships with 10 utilities — seven in the United States, one in Canada, one in Germany and one in India — to help customers conserve power. Enel has roughly 32 million smart meters installed in Italian households and is talking with Google about a PowerMeter app for Enel customers.

Microsoft also sees opportunity in this marketplace. Its Hohm website makes it easy for anyone in the United States to figure out how energy efficient their homes are. Presently, the Hohm website gives an approximate evaluation of the customer's house, but Microsoft's goal is to have devices feed data to the Hohm app for real-time analysis.

Cisco has developed an interesting approach to customer energy efficiency with its Network Building Mediator. The system aggregates data from sensors in heating, lighting, ventilation and air conditioning systems. It is designed with any-to-any connectivity offering end-to-end energy management for efficiency and conservation. It is an extendable platform using third-party applications and cloud services.

Another customer-friendly scheme for the residential sector energy management is offered by Tendril. It is a digital-clock-inspired, wall-mounted home energy display called the Vision, with a touch screen that shows real-time electricity consumption.

Adrian Tuck, CEO of Tendril, compares Vision to the TiVo for its simplicity and ease of use. The Vision connects to wireless thermostats and other ZigBee-enabled devices. It communicates with the smart meter through ZigBee, too. This gives the consumer an almost intuitive way to participate in utility demand-response programs.

Utilities Have Apps, Too

On the utility side, sensors are being installed throughout the distribution grid, collecting real-time two-way data between the utility and the customer. Companies such as BPL Global, Capgemini, Oracle, Silver Spring Networks, SmartSynch and Trilliant are providing utilities enterprise-wide systems that allow them to manage, transfer and store data. Utilities using the technology can control transmission and distribution power flows, reduce peak power demand and communicate across multiple stakeholder platforms.

“The customer and the distribution system are being integrated. It is an end-to-end approach,” said Brian Jenkins, director of corporate marketing for Trilliant. “This approach extends from inside the home, out on the feeder and on to the substation. It provides intelligent communications and advanced metering, and supports demand-response measures. The customer can save on energy costs, and the utility can be proactive in responding to events on the system.”

Cellular carriers also are interested in the smart grid marketplace. Many see this as a tremendous growth market, and they are tailoring their services for utilities. AT&T and its partner SmartSynch are working with Texas-New Mexico Power Co. (TNMP), known for its innovative approach to problem solving.

In 2009, TNMP installed roughly 10,000 smart meters from GE and Elster equipped with SmartSynch SSI modules to communicate with AT&T's cellular service. The smart meter cellular system gives TNMP the ability to read meters every 15 minutes, connect and disconnect remotely, and receive real-time notification of outages.

“Using a cellular solution just makes sense,” said Allan Burke, director of REP relations for TNMP. “AT&T has the infrastructure in place, and TNMP doesn't need to spend its money developing something that is already available. The cost is very attractive [about $0.50/meter per month].”

“The yearlong pilot project proved so successful — a 99.96% average daily read rate — that TNMP plans to deploy the system to its entire customer base once PUC approval is received,” Burke added.

Energi Fyn is in the final stages of a smart meter multi-energy deployment that includes not only electricity, but heat and water, too. The enhanced customer services scheme consists of fiber-optic communications and Landis+Gyr's Advanced Metering Management system and meters. Energi Fyn reports high customer satisfaction with the system, which played a key role in deciding to expand the scheme to entire customer base.

Where to Go From Here

The grid is getting smarter whether utilities like it or not. It is evolving into an electrical grid that is interactive, flexible and responsive to the needs of customers, while providing utilities with operational efficiency and the ability to optimize assets. Where demand response once meant shedding load, today it includes the ability to shift loads and even shape loads.

Electricity is no longer a passive purchase, either. Customers are involved as active participants in the electric marketplace, where choice means real-time pricing, peak-time rebates and critical peak pricing.

Independent third-party entrants (energy service companies) are offering customer-centric services to the residential sector. Legacy utilities must become more customer focused, flexible and efficient, or they risk their customer base switching to more innovative entities offering value-added products.

Companies mentioned:



BPL Global







Energi Fyn




Harris Poll








Silver Spring Networks