Thursday, February 21, 2013

Starting at the Refrigerator...

An article in FierceSmartGrid just crossed my inbox.  It's an interesting interview with Saifur Rahman, founding director of the Advanced Research Institute at Virginia Tech, and VP of the IEEE Power and Energy Society.

To my mind, Saifur gets many things right, particularly identifying the problem.  He's right when he says that the foundation of the Smart Grid "pyramid" is customer acceptance.  If we don't get that, the rest (technology, standards, regulation) is all for naught.

Here's where I think he (and a lot of other folks) are getting it wrong.

He talks about Smart Grid "from the generator to the refrigerator."  By doing so, he includes intelligent customer side equipment in his definition of a Smart Grid.  He also acknowledges that the utility has no business beyond the "front door" (i.e. meter), so he gets the importance of customer choice in the whole evolution, and that the customer needs to be convinced to accept the change.

But here's his response (in part) to the question of how to gain customer acceptance:

It's a slow process. First, people are not willing to spend more money than they must. That's common sense. Early adopters will spend money just to see what's possible, but that's not everybody.

So I would promote the notion that laying the technical foundations for a smarter grid enables monitoring and control, which in turn lead to efficiencies. That serves the consumer -- who pays for the system -- because it avoids the model of the past, in which we built over-capacity to serve peaks loads that occur only 5 percent of the time.
Item 1: People are not willing to spend more than they must?  Really?  How does Apple even stay in business?  For that matter, how does Mercedes-Benz?  How does Acura turn a profit by essentially creating a more expensive line of the same vehicles they produce as Honda?

Item 2: I'm sorry, there is no way that you are going to convince most people that the technological foundations of Smart Grid are going to provide a benefit, even though it is true.  If you can get past the fact that most folks' eyes glaze over about 10 seconds into the discussion , you face the fact that people are wary of "monitoring and control" when it's applied to themselves, and you'll have a hard time convincing some folks that they aren't the actual target.

The solution to the problem is really to reverse the order in which you conceptualize and popularize the Smart Grid.  Not "from the generator to the refrigerator" but "from the refrigerator to ... eh, who cares?"

I'm learning from my conversations with the folks who actually sell products to consumers that the way to popularize Smart Grid is to provide tangible consumer benefit, starting at the customer's end of the system.

Not "save you money" but "make your life more convenient/secure/fun/interesting/whatever."

Make the end-devices intelligent, in a way that drives customer adoption of the end devices.  Then roll out the smart grid functions that make those devices better.

BTW: The early adopters who do something just to see if they can, or just because it is cool and different, are your consumer marketing gods and goddesses.  Court them, get their attention, let them play, see what they like, and build on what you learn.

Everything else in Smart Grid needs to be done without fanfare.  Not in secret, certainly, but just so that it is clear that the rest of the system is not the point of the exercise.

Because, for your customer, it isn't.

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