vendredi 22 octobre 2010

Does the Smart Grid Really Need Consumer Engagement?

Contrary to increasingly popular belief, it is not necessarily true that the smart grid requires consumer engagement to succeed. A truly smart grid should require as little consumer participation as possible. This is the only way we will ever reach the point where the "smart" in "smart grid" will seem as redundant as the "electric" in "electric light bulb."

Easy Does It

I am not asserting that electricity firms and/or regulators should prevent anyone from becoming an active participant in the energy system. After all, a primary benefit of the smart grid is that it will unleash data that will let individuals manage their home energy consumption according to their individual preferences. Early technology adopters, zealous environmental activists, and proactive energy budgeters should be afforded every opportunity to use the smart grid's consumer interfaces, such as in-home displays and programmable communicating appliances, to fine-tune their electricity consumption choices to satisfy their gadget obsessions, reduce their emissions profile, and manage their energy bills.

But for most of us, "more data" probably sounds more like a burden than a benefit. The vast majority of electricity consumers will prefer to set it and forget it. Isn't that a big part of why our society made electricity ubiquitous in the first place — to light our houses, wash our dishes, and do our laundry? We use electricity so that we can have more time to do the things that we really want to do. To build a smart grid that requires consumers to actively monitor prices, respond immediately to reliability signals, or continuously adjust their routines would not only set ourselves up for failure, but also runs counter to the main reason for our using electricity in the first place — to make life easier.

Simple Enough to Succeed

How easy does the smart grid have to be? Think anti-lock brakes (ABS). We've always been able to pump the brakes rapidly on our cars to maintain traction by keeping our tires from locking up. But too few drivers understood the benefits, much less developed the muscle memory to do this instinctively. Thanks to ABS technology, our cars now do this for us — and do it far more quickly and precisely than any human can — to prevent accidents and save lives.

Or consider the success of Apple, Inc. While Apple might not have invented such technologies as graphical user interfaces, portable music players, or smartphones, the company succeeds by making such powerful innovations easy to use for everyone, not just for technophiles. Making smart grid accessible to consumers doesn't mean making it any less sophisticated, however. It will require ingenuity and effort to make the smart grid easy enough for consumers to use, yet powerful enough to be effective.

For Everything to Stay the Same, Something Must Change

Convenience isn't the only benefit that electricity has given us. Displacing inefficient, polluting end-use combustion of fossil fuels with clean(er) central power generation has been one of the greatest (and often most underappreciated) environmental achievements in modern history. The economic efficiencies made possible by electrification of industries have been nothing short of transformative to the well-being of the human race. And the mind-boggling innovations in science, medicine, commerce, and social interaction brought about by the electricity-powered computing revolution are only just getting started.

In order for our energy system to remain cost-effective in delivering reliable electricity in a way that is compatible with our deepening understanding of sustainability — in other words, for everything to stay the same — we need the smart grid. And while the smart grid makes possible the decentralization of energy information and enables the democratization of electricity decision-making — in other words, the things that must change — utilities, policymakers, and regulators would be wise to make sure that the smart grid makes life just as easy as before, and certainly no harder, for consumers. The good news is that user-friendly (and, importantly, user-override-able) technologies to automate demand response and simplify energy management are available toward this end. Let's focus more on consumer convenience and worry less about consumer engagement as we build America's next great infrastructure — the smart grid.

Michael Jung serves as Policy Director at Silver Spring Networks and is a founding board member of Smart Grid Oregon. He previously advised Ohio Governor Ted Strickland on energy issues and also managed environmental affairs at American Electric Power. The opinions expressed in this article are solely his own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the organizations with which he is affiliated.

SOURCE : Harvard Business Review

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