‘Energy Democracy’ Becomes More Real

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Will new technologies democratize energy much the way the Internet did information?

Industry movement seems to point in that direction with the rise of the smart grid, time-of-day pricing, distributed solar, and the electric vehicle. Together these technologies offer a vision of a less centralized energy system, one where communities and households ‘vote in’ or shape the electric grid by how they decide to consume energy, a phenomenon also called the Energy Internet.

Four pieces of news this week reflect a bubbling up of this trend. The first two are solicitations that innovators in this realm might want to check out. The last might be more appropriately described as energy tyranny.

Shaping the Energy Internet in Maine and Ontario

In Maine, GridSolar is working on a project that tries to solve electricity reliability problems with pinpointed, local solutions, rather than large and expensive transmission build-outs. To that end, the company has issued a solicitation seeking projects in Boothbay Harbor for 2,000 kW of energy efficiency, demand response, distributed generation or energy storage. GridSolar, working on this with a nod from state regulators, says the pilot project could avoid the need for an $18 million rebuild of a 34.5 kV line. At the same time, it offers a new, more localized way to keep the lights on. Project contracts will run three years, beginning June 1, 2013. Those who want to propose projects must respond by November 9. Details are available at gridsolar.com.

In Canada, the Ontario Power Authority is seeking help understanding human behavior and energy use. Most electric customers in the province now have smart meters. Some have home energy displays. These customers can see when energy prices change throughout the day and can adjust their energy use accordingly. Now that they have the equipment, what will encourage them to use it? Will the opportunity to lower their energy bills really persuade them? Some research suggests that we’re motivated more by social cues than money. Because we’re social creatures, we are more apt to take action if our friends and neighbors do. The OPA wants to look into this more closely, so seeks proposals for four social benchmarking pilot projects. Proposals are due November 30. The request for proposals is here.

On a broader level, the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative released national survey results this week that raised some interesting questions. The industry is moving toward developing an Energy Internet. But is the public clued in? That’s an important question because like all democracies this one requires participation of the masses. SGCC’s survey found that 54 percent of respondents never heard of the term smart grid, about the same as a similar survey last year. The persistently low level of consumer awareness shows a real need for consumer education around smart grid, according to Patty Durand, SGCC executive director. Her group is part of a Department of Energy effort to make smart grid more consumer-friendly.

Energy despots in France?

And if events in France are any indication, the SGCC and DOE effort is very important. Understanding what attracts – and repels – the energy consumer will be key to making the Energy Internet work. A Bloomberg report “Power hogs targeted by France in Big Brother legislation” indicates that France may be using new technologies for energy despotism, not democracy. As told by Bloomberg, the French government would set energy quotas for each dwelling based on household income from tax returns, medical records and local weather. The pending legislation would create rewards for household conservation and financial penalties for over-consumption.

Critics say the quota system is not only Orwellian, but also far too complicated, fraught with bureaucracy and not what smart grid technology is all about. True smart grid efforts start with understanding consumer motivation and then working with, not against human nature. In its ideal form, smart grid encourages efficient energy use through technology and price signals – something we don’t experience now. For example, the cost to generate power fluctuates throughout the day, but most consumers in the US do not experience those changes because we pay homogenized rates. Blinded to the true cost, we may choose to do our laundry or dishes during high price hours having no price motivation to do otherwise. Technology that offers time-of-day pricing offers us the opportunity to align consumption to the market cost. By doing so, we theoretically reduce the costs to the entire system and therefore to all who use it.

Fifteen years ago, I would have sent this blog off to a publisher and days or weeks or maybe months later a relatively small number of readers would have received it via snail mail in a paper form. Today, with a press of a button I will send it to hundreds, thousands or maybe millions (I wish!) of readers via the Internet. If the Energy Internet’s eventual promise holds true, with a push of a computer or cell phone button, consumers will maneuver energy as easily. We will see what comes.

Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer whose work appears in many of the industry’s top magazines and newsletters. She is publisher of the Energy Efficiency Markets podcast and newsletter.

About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.