Opinion

Let’s Make Smart Grid Simple

Everything has already been said about the smart grid, and not a day goes by where I do not receive in my inbox another attempt to describe what it is.

And while many of us have attempted to describe the smart grid in a way to elicit that “ah ha” moment, we often fall short.

Sometimes we throw around industry jargon—distributed generation, peak shaving, and demand response. Let’s remind ourselves that these are not commonly understood terms and probably scare people away more than draw them in.

Other times, we are so focused on reducing our story into something understandable to the customer that we fail to even start the discussion in the right place—from the perspective of the customer.

Customers have only three reasons for listening to us at all. They want electricity, they want it cheap, and they want it as environmentally-friendly as it can be. Giving customers more control, more choices, and greater engagement with their energy services are often cited as benefits in and of themselves. Yet, these are only a means to an end.

If we are going to start talking about how smart grid delivers these three benefits, let’s go one step further. Let’s stop telling, and start showing. We already have the proof.

In the past months, two major investor-owned electric utilities have described the customer-focused benefits of better grid technology.

Pacific Gas & Electric reports that its investments allowed it to “restore service to the vast majority of customers within 24 hours” after the 2014 Napa earthquake. In 2013, “customers experienced the fewest minutes without electricity in company history.” Smart grid gave them the information they needed without sending work crews around town, saved fuel, and therefore “reduced emissions by more than 61,000 pounds of CO2.”

Duke Energy reports that smart grid “identified 3,325 cases of electricity theft” (while the rest of us pay) and “improved bill accuracy and call center efficiency…producing 2–3 times greater cost savings than originally anticipated.”

The same customer-centric approach should be used when communicating with policymakers who, along with customers, are helping to shape the future of the electric system.

U.S. Representatives Renee Ellmers (R-NC) and Jerry McNerney (D-CA) have given us a venue in which to do this. In September, they announced the formation of the Grid Innovation Caucus, an affiliation of members of Congress that will serve as a forum to educate members and their staffs on customer benefits of an advanced technology grid and the federal policies that can help us achieve it.

The National Electrical Manufacturers Association believes a key policy is to enable investor-owned utilities in their federal tax filings to depreciate these new assets over a shorter period of time. This would better align with the useful life of the technology. In turn, this would encourage utilities to continually invest in technologies that benefit their customers.

At the same time, states are forging ahead with their own reforms and initiatives. For example, New York has embarked on its own path through the State Public Service Commission. Reforming the Energy Vision or REV seeks to revamp the state’s retail markets to give customers more choice and control over their energy decisions (to achieve one or more of the three benefits) and encourage utilities to explore less costly ways to meet customer demands.

Customers do not care about the technologies behind the curtain. All they want to know is that their power will flow, their bills will be affordable, and that the environment will not be unnecessarily impacted.

I was always instructed by my English teachers to show, not tell. I believe we have the opportunity now to show, not tell, customers that grid technologies will give them exactly what they want.

Jim Creevy serves as Director of Government Relations for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association in Rosslyn, Virginia. He is responsible for working with federal and state policymakers on grid modernization and energy efficiency.

 

 

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