Thursday, October 21, 2010


What will the consumer-facing smart grid look like? 

A post by Katie Fehrenbacher on GigaOm this week notes that while utilities are installing the infrastructure for smarter power grids, “it will be the applications that run on top of these networks that will drive a lot of the revenues for companies, and ultimately provide the important functionality for consumers and utilities.”

I agree with her assessment.  I’d like to go a little further, and suggest that the future configuration of the consumer-facing smart grid will be a combination of three things: a smart meter, a web app and a smart phone.

Despite some doubts expressed by some (me included) about the wholesale push into smart metering, it’s a pretty safe bet that those devices are here to stay.   Owned by, and providing real benefits to the utility, smart meters are likely to be a money-maker for utilities in the long run.

What about the smart sensors and controllers – the networked collection of in-home devices that will gather real-time energy consumption information from appliances and send the data to a central console for viewing and control action by the householder and/or the utility?  Quite a few companies have emerged in this segment of the so-called home energy management space – and there’s fierce competition developing, along with a rising tide of mergers and acquisitions.

I think that stuff is pretty neat (I’m an engineer, after all) but I also think most of it will go away in a few years (a SmartGridNews staff report this week considers the home energy management sector as “waaaayyy overcrowded”).  Once standards (especially for data security protocols) get set and adopted and appliances get smart, the same sensing and control capabilities will increasingly be built into the appliances themselves, which will directly communicate with the smart meter.  GE is apparently readying its rollout of a range of smart appliances that may set the pace for this trend.

In any case, the success of companies like Opower points to a subversive fact: a lot of these home energy networking devices….(gasp) aren’t even necessary anyway!  Why?  Because energy consumption is fundamentally about human behavior.  A British economist named W Stanley Jevons pointed out in 1866 why throwing more efficient technology at the problem of increasing consumption doesn’t necessarily solve it.  A household equipped with the basic energy efficient appliances (CFLs, front-load washers, etc) and using behavioral nudges, can save just as much energy and carbon over time, as the set-it-and-forget-it networked dream house of the future.  Bear in mind that every smart meter or in-home device has an up-front, built-in energy and carbon footprint based on its materials, manufacture, packaging and shipping (the upcoming Story of Electronics, part of the seminal Story of Stuff Project, may have some details on this).

The web app (provided to the utility by a third party) will interface with the smart meter and will collect, sort and present the consumption data to the consumer on a dashboard, so that the consumer has the necessary information and other motivational nudges to be more energy efficient.  This area is also developing and some of the names in this space are huge, familiar and developing super-sophisticated offerings crammed with databases and complex algorithms (Google, Microsoft); others, not so much (Welectricity).

And finally, the consumer will view that dashboard on the web – which, increasingly, means on a smart phone.  So, in-home display devices, now also coming much into vogue, will eventually go away as well, since none of these will be able to match the sheer convenience and multi-functionality of tomorrow’s smart phones.

Some wag once said “I never make predictions: especially about the future”.  That might be a good policy, but it’s no fun.  So, what’s your take on this?  I’d love to get your feedback, at