Smart Enough About Smart Grid?

I’m at my in-laws’ for Thanksgiving and my father-in-law is trying to understand the difference between “burning” and “ripping” a CD. It just makes me think about how funny it is that some scientist or engineer comes up with a term that’s a mix of an accurate description, and an inside joke and all of the sudden it’s in the common parlance. Everyone’s talking “smart grid” these days, which is totally inside baseball for the electric utility/clean energy set.

And it’s not actually just the grid itself that we’re trying make smart; it’s everything from electricity generation and storage to transmission to metering and usage. You need “smart meters” and “smart appliances” and the rest to help consumers have the information they need to make energy use management a two way street…or, to reappropriate a related phrase (since reliable broadband matters too), we’re trying to create the Electricity Superhighway. What’s really been fascinating to watch, though, is how the Puget Sound and Washington state are really taking big strides to lead the country in developing a smart grid for the Pacific Northwest.

We already knew that we had innovative public and private utilities focused on smart grid and smart metering, and top technology companies that are developing tools to help manage the smart electricity grid (V2Green, Microsoft). But the level of investment recently has been exciting.  Just from the Recovery Act alone in the last month we’ve seen $15 million to the Snohomish Public Utilities District and $88 million to Battelle ($10 million of which will involve the University of Washington, McKinstry and Seattle City Light.   Utilities love this stuff because it allows them to maximize their electricity generation (reducing the need for investments in either new generation or buying from out of state) and it lays the groundwork for better transmission of renewable energy-generated power; it’s going to be great for homes and businesses in our region because they’ll be able to make the energy efficiency decisions that can save them money.

One point that I want to continue to hammer home, though, is that this cannot just about local energy efficiency.  We’re a very “green” population, in that we care a lot about the environment, we love to be early adopters of cool new environmentally friendly technologies and we like to save money (who doesn’t!).  But the Big Win for our region is not lower energy bills and a greater sense of self-satisfaction; it’s jobs and wealth creation.  If we develop and perfect this technology and the processes that go along with it (the end-user interface, for example), we can sell those goods and services around the world.  For example, we don’t build appliances here, but I wouldn’t be shocked if we became the leading provider of the software that can help your dishwasher know when to run its load at the lowest energy rates.  Or look at McKinstry, which can expand their business to do around the globe what they’re doing in that UW project: installing “smart” electric meters, upgrading the communication capability for buildings, installing data management equipment, and installing monitoring and control equipment…not to mention actually monitoring and managing usage remotely from their headquarters in Seattle.

The future is now.  Let’s sell it to people.

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