Saving The Smart Grid


Hype, hysteria, and strategic planning.

Hype, hysteria, and strategic planning.

Fortnightly Magazine - January 2011

Smart grid backers might do well to heed the words of George Orwell, himself no stranger to fantastic visions. Of Orwell’s many observations was this one, on the mercurial nature of slang and cursing: “The strange thing is that when a word is established as a swear word, it seems to lose its original meaning. It loses the thing that made it into a swear word.”

But though “smart grid” might not yet qualify as a curse—not in most circles anyway—lately the term has come down in the world, its meaning undermined by ubiquity. Once a phrase becomes a buzzword, its connotations begin to bob and swirl in the eddies of public imagination. And over the last couple of years, “smart grid” has been through a veritable spin cycle.

“People are getting tired of the word in all its different parts and pieces, because it’s been so overused. It’s not as bad as ‘sustainability’ yet, but it’s getting there,” says Chris Hickman, president of Innovari Energy and former PNM executive. “The very unfortunate part is that the expectations have been completely screwed up.”

EES North America

Indeed, the past year has seen remarkable pushback against smart grid initiatives on several fronts. An Illinois state court ruled in October that Commonwealth Edison was wrong to pass on smart grid costs to customers. Maryland’s PUC denied Baltimore Gas & Electric’s smart grid investment plan in June, prompting the utility to come back with a less ambitious approach. And public protests in such places as Northern California and Ohio have cast public fears in Orwellian overtones.

Much of the trouble tracks back to the way utilities and public figures talk about smart grid issues. The problem isn’t just that “smart grid” is a vague and over-applied term; the bigger problem is that it has morphed into a catch-all idea, stuffed full of promises that could smother the true potential.

“The hype has brought people into the industry who don’t understand utilities or even revenue metering,” says Mark Munday, CEO of metering technology vendor Elster Solutions N.A. “That has given the industry a black eye. My worry is there’s so much focus on the negative that people will miss the benefits of the smart grid. We need to help utilities get out there and talk about the success they’ve had.”

While reflecting on language and usage might not be an everyday utility concern, effective communication around smart grid issues is turning into one of the biggest and trickiest problems facing utilities today—and one that could persist for years or decades. (See “Dos and Don’ts of Smart Grid Communications.”)

The critical questions in the discussion shouldn’t be whether to build the smart grid—that seems inevitable as companies upgrade their systems over the course of time—but how much it will cost and how it will be funded. If the dialogue gets sidetracked by red-herring concerns, however, “smart grid” could turn into