By Howard Baldwin, Contributing Columnist
Energy policy is a topic that is on the minds of government and business leaders the world over. According to The Climate Group, an independent not-for-profit organization, our global economy is still driven by energy needs, and the vast majority of that energy comes from a finite supply of fossil fuels. According to their assessment, unless we rethink the way we produce and consume energy, eventually there won’t be enough to go around.
They believe that we need to cut our emissions by two thirds by 2050. But we need to do it in a way that protects our livelihoods, creates jobs and supports economic growth around the globe.
Smart grids will likely be part of the solution. A recent Broadband Breakfast meeting in Washington, D.C., focused on smart grid innovation — the idea of creating an energy grid that collects and transmits usage information in such a way that utilities can become more efficient and their customers can become more informed.
To learn more about the topic, check out Gridonomics: An Introduction to the Factors Shaping Electric Industry Transformation.
Smart Grid and Broadband Intertwined
The upshot of the panel discussion: the smart grid and broadband are inextricably intertwined, as broadband gives the smart grid the speed and bandwidth it needs for rapid updates on usage, which can then be disseminated back to consumers.
According to Nick Sinai, senior advisor to White House’s chief technology officer, there are already several governmental programs currently underway:
- Part of the funding of the recent recession recovery legislation funded 1,000 sensors across the transmission grid, designed to alert utilities to problems early enough to avoid a blackout such as the one that hit in eight northeastern states and a Canadian province in August of 2003.
- The White House Policy Framework for the 21st Century Grid lays out a roadmap for state regulators and industry to follow in terms of infrastructure investment.
- The U.S. Department of Agriculture has committed $150 million in smart grid investment through its Rural Utilities Service (RUS) (see Why Rural Access Matters for more on rural broadband investment).
Smart Grid Issues Still to Ponder
Even with such progress, the triad of government, industry, and utilities still has some issues to tackle. For instance, Paul Hamilton, vice president of government affairs for energy management firm Schneider Electric, which does business in 190 countries, told the attendees that the residential market uses 35 percent of the power but consists of 85 percent of the users.
Residential users “care about safety, price and outages, after that there are not a lot of drivers for energy efficiency,” he noted. “Commercial drivers are different. Industry is very aware of managing energy.”
At the same time, that triad has to deal with information privacy and security issues; the challenging of who deploys the grid when utilities share overlapping territories; and how to craft incentives for both residents and utilities to accept smart grid technology.
But as with any technology, there’s also a longer view. Jeffery Dygert, executive director of public policy for AT&T, told the meeting that AT&T’s Digital Life Project could benefit from the smart grid, by potentially creating a unified digital platform in the home that would incorporate security, monitoring, telehealth, energy efficiency, smart grid as well as video IPTV and DSL services, all be accessed through a single device.
Essentially, smart grids could follow the same path as the Internet. The latter’s developers originally envisioned a way to preserve post-war communications; they never imagined a communication and commercial mechanism that would rewrite the rules by which we live and work. By designing the smart grid as a foundation, utilities and service providers can harness it not just for energy, but for personal safety and other capabilities we haven’t begun to imagine.