The much ballyhooed smart grid might be buoyed by the stimulus bill, which appropriates $4.5 billion in direct spending to modernize the electricity grid with smart-grid technologies (part of the $11 overall for spending related to the smart grid), but that doesn’t mean there’s a clear, easy path to smartening up the grid. That was made clear on Wednesday during an oversight hearing that the US Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources held to examine the progress on smart grid initiatives.
Developing interoperability standards – which will ensure that the myriad metering devices that make up the grid will transmit data in a uniform, sharable, and understandable manner – and data security protections – to protect the new, digitized energy grid from terrorism and who-knows-what-else – represent a whole lot of work and a lot of potential drag on the speed with which the full-blown smart grid can become a reality.
These two issues – standards and security – accounted for most of the testimony at the hearing. And though Senators on the panel pressed Patrick Gallagher, deputy director of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), for a hard deadline on when standards and security specifications would be ready for prime time, no such hard deadline exists. Initial drafts of standards should be complete by this summer, but there’s no hard timeline beyond that. (NIST has the primary responsibility for coordinating the development of the framework of interoperability standards for the smart grid. It is working with the Department of Energy and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, in doing so.)
The private sector – the makers of the smart metering devices and the software backbone of the smart grid – are going to really be leading the standards effort since, Gallagher told the panel, “You can’t write a standard against a technology that doesn’t exist yet.”
Demonstration projects are a key element in the development of standards, as well, and Gallagher said that NIST officials are working closely with Xcel Energy in Boulder, Colo., where the utility is operating one such program called Smart Grid City.
Standards evolve and change over time, but they need to be at an acceptable level of maturity before regulators and utilities are likely to adopt smart grid technology. If they develop the networks that will enabled the smart grid too quickly, they run the risk of ending up with systems that can’t communicate and devices that aren’t compatible. Aside from wasting vast financial backing, that could lead to disillusion among utilities and consumers about the promise of the smart grid.
In fact, Evan Gaddis, the president and CEO of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, said during his testimony that matching funds in the stimulus shouldn’t be awarded until the standards are set.
Once standards are solid enough to really push the smart grid out into the homes of consumers, the utilities, regulators and electricity distributors are going to be faced with the challenge of setting and then communicating a new rate scheme to consumers. And consumers will need to play a vital role as well. To enjoy some of the benefits that will come with the smart grid, such as rate incentives for lowering demand at peak times, they’ll need to invest in smart metering devices for their homes and also invest time and energy into understanding how it all works.
And then there’s the issue of the transmission lines needed to make renewable energy sources an integral part of the new grid. And in fact, the Senate Committee on Energy & Natural Resources is supposed to meet again on March 12 to examine draft legislation designed to support and accelerate the building of those transmission lines. The bill was introduced by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who Thursday said he would wrap it up into legislation that also addresses cap-and-trade measures and the establishment of a nationwide renewable electricity standard, according to the New York Times.