It seems new smart technologies emerge by the day: smart plug-in cars, smart dishwashers, smart coffeemakers… The future will be Green, no doubt about it! For all the praises I have for the engineers and scientists that make it happen, I believe that this is the easy part of making the power grid smart. Implementation of the transformation will be the hard one.
Scale is an obvious challenge. Developed countries’ power grids have been built all along the 20th century, requiring titanic levels of investments. Upgrades, retrofits and greenfield additions will require a comparable level of efforts. And time. Lots of it. For utilities, short term means 5 years. For my generation of impatient go-getters, used to have everything a click away, grasping this relation to time is a challenge.
At the other end of the spectrum, utility employees have it in their blood. Being on average 50 years old (in the US, but also in Europe, in India…), they have seen their plants and their grids grow, and know them as well as their children. Their job has taught them to be conservative. You think twice before you make a multi-billion euro investment. You triple check before you disconnect a transformer, thousands of people could be in the dark because of you. Nobody will complain because you are being too prudent. In addition, electric utilities employ essentially electrical engineers. IT is a foreign concept, a mere support function. But for the transformation foreseen to happen, digital technology needs to be a core element.
Implementation of a Smart Grid will require to have the insiders on board. Such a complex technical project cannot be done without all the field experience, which is often not documented. Getting the young hyperactive CleanTech crowd to partner with the experienced, conservative utilities one is a political challenge. And this is just one example of group difference that need to be resolved. Agreeing on standards and protocols will be another one.
It is the role of politicians, through the regulators, to unite different parts of society toward a common goal. Jim Rogers, the forward-looking CEO of Duke, has perfectly understood it, and is doing massive lobbying to push his Negawatt plan. Utilities grew as local players, with very tight local connections. Given the scale and complexity of the transformation, the industry now needs to think at an international level. This shift will disturb many vested interests.
Having politicians drive change, by making different people work together and overcoming vested interests, will be really hard. So get ready for a long, difficult and exciting journey.
Also read: “The Grid” – not quite electrifying, but it’ll give you a jolt (a book review)