To break the gas station’s grip, consumers should smarten up about the smart grid

Posted on March 7th, 2011 by

Consumers know what they want, but don’t always understand what it will take to get it. In the case of the smart grid, the public is excited about many of the services that will be possible once utilities upgrade the ageing wires and meters that route power to US homes and business. Sure enough, industry — with funding from Washington — is racing to roll out this advanced infrastructure. Yet most folks remain unaware of the smart grid’s central role in delivering the very services that are most promising.

Consider electrically powered cars, or e-cars. This past summer, consumers in California were asked about their preferences for how to refuel the coming wave of battery powered cars – from Nissan’s Leaf, to Chevy’s Volt, and Tesla’s Roadster — that will soon be humming (almost silently) along US roadways.

Their near unanimous answer? They prefer to plug in at their homes. The July study, conducted by the power industry’s research arm –the Electric Power Research Institute, or EPRI – reveals that a key attraction of the coming era of e-cars is that consumers are looking forward to gaining control of the refueling process, and just maybe visit the gas pump a little (or a lot) less often.  Fueling stations won’t disappear of course: The survey also found that the availability of fast recharge stations at gas stations and elsewhere was a plus in the consideration of e-cars.

Yet ask the same consumer what it might take to get their home ready to handle the complexities of e-car recharging and, odds are, they’ll draw a blank. According to a June survey by EcoAlign and RussellResearch, less than a third of Americans recognize – let alone understand — the term “smart grid.” Few, it seems, realize that to manage billing, guarantee availability of power, and to insure the lowest possible cost to recharge their e-car, a smart meter,  connected  with new smart grid applications operating at the utility, has to run the process.

Indeed, consumers consistently like many of the services a smarter grid will make possible. For instance, there’s scant controversy about generating power from roof-top solar panels, and selling the excess back to the grid.  There’s also broad interest in seeing utility bills fall via demand management programs that trim charges by turning down appliances remotely during periods of peak demand.  Like e-cars, these advances can only scale up if the grid is made smarter.

The challenge is making the smart grid synonymous, in the public’s mind, with all these green goodies.

Written by Andy Bochman, IBM

Andy Bochman is the energy security lead for IBM’s Rational division, where the focus is on securing the software that runs the Smart Grid. IBM is celebrating its centennial anniversary this year.

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