Connecting Consumers to the Digital Grid

How can traditional utilities work alongside tech innovators to realize the full advantages of the smart grid? And how will this transformation from pipeline to platform really impact customers? Those were just a few of the questions buzzing around Zpryme's Energy Thought Summit 2016 in Austin, particularly during the panel session: "A Network of Networks: Connecting Consumers & the Digital Grid," moderated by Pierpont's Stacy Armijo.

"Where we are today with smart meters and battery storage is much like where we were years ago, as we moved away from the dial-up modem to broadband Internet," said panelist Brewster McCracken (pictured far right), Chief Executive Officer of Pecan Street, a research and commercialization institute at The University of Texas at Austin focused on accelerating innovation in the areas of water and energy. The transition, McCracken explained, is one that requires energy companies to focus not only on the acquisition of usage data, but also the practical application of that data to make consumers' lives better.

And that's exactly the focus of panelists Clare Butterfield, Executive Director of the Illinois Science & Energy Innovation Foundation (ISEIF), Nathan Shannon, Deputy Director of Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (pictured far left) and Ravi Pradhan, Vice President of Technology Strategy in Siemens' Digital Grid Division (pictured second from right).

Moving the Grid from Theory to Reality

Panelist Jane Park, Vice President of Regulatory Policy & Strategy at energy delivery company ComEd, also pointed out that for ComEd, the focus has moved away from energy as a pipeline. Rather, ComEd views energy as a platform of three core networks: the physical network, data network and social network. "The platform is a whole new way of thinking," said Park, "but we're not just talking about three networks at a theoretical level. The grid isn't a theory, it's a reality."

It's this reality that ComEd is helping shape in Illinois, particularly through its pilot microgrid neighborhood project, Bronzeville. ComEd received a $4 million award from the U.S. Department of Energy SunShot Initiative to design and deploy a solar and battery storage technology within the microgrid. These microgrids will help distribute power to critical neighborhood facilities, such as hospitals, schools and fire and police departments.

At ISEIF, Butterfield works closely with organizations like ComEd to ensure these advances benefit all consumers. "We cannot forget that this is also about including low-income residents and seniors in the conversation," she added. "We've found that seniors are very willing to engage in usage reduction."

Much like with other social changes, whether choosing organic food or using reusable shopping bags, the first step is about creating awareness among consumers. According to Pradhan of Siemens, this means ensuring everyone has access to the data they want and need to make decisions. That's because, he explained, "some consumers want to use a portal and manage their energy usage on a daily basis like their stock portfolios."

Others, however, just want to spend the minimum amount of time necessary thinking about their energy footprint. According to Shannon of the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative, it's the early adopters that will ultimately influence and evolve the way we think about and consume energy. "Consumers only want to engage to a certain point, so we have to provide education on the benefits of the grid," he said. "We have to work with them to understand what's important about usage and adoption."