4 Predictions for Smart Grid in 2012

More pricing options and automation are on the way, experts say.

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Is this the year the so-called smart grid takes off, and millions more two-way communicating smart meters are installed to bring energy-saving programs and better efficiency to homes and businesses across the United States? Will we soon be able to wash our clothes or dishes or charge electric vehicles at times that are less expensive than others, and do so automatically?

Representatives from Siemens’ eMeter business tackled those questions in a Greentech Media webinar titled The Year Smart Grid 2.0 Becomes a Reality.

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First of all, what’s Smart Grid 2.0, and if there is one, what was 1.0? Explains Chris King, eMeter’s chief regulatory officer: 1.0 is putting in smart meters. Smart grid 2.0 is doing something with the energy usage data that can be collected via those smart meters.

Currently, King says, there are about 30 million smart meters installed in the country, with another 30 million committed over the next few years. It will still be years before a vast majority of homes and businesses in the United States have smart meters, so much of the country is in smart grid 1.0. However, in places where most smart meters have been installed, like Delaware, Idaho, California and Texas, utilities can start analyzing that data, processing it and establishing energy efficiency programs for their customers.

Here are four predictions for the smart grid this year, presented by King and Larsh Johnson, eMeter’s founder, director and chief technology officer.

1. New pricing options and programs will roll out.

King and Johnson anticipate more demand response and time of use programs offered by utilities. Demand response programs typically offer a credit or discount in exchange for the utility cycling off appliances like air conditioners during peak usage periods. One example of this is San Diego Gas & Electric’s Summer Saver program, which offers credits for cycling off customers’ AC when needed.

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Some Texas utilities and energy retailers already offer time of use rates, which vary during the day, depending on demand. Electric rates can be more expensive at peak usage periods.

And once smart appliances and other devices can communicate with smart meters, they can be programmed to only run cycles at less expensive times. Although we should see more smart appliances appearing this year, it will be a while before they become mainstream.

Prepayment programs, in which utility customers prepay for an allotted amount of energy, are also growing and have been shown to help cut energy usage by 12 percent, King says.

2. Automation and consumer engagement will grow.

The Green Button initiative, in which utilities offer customers downloads of their detailed energy usage information, will spread from California to many other utilities. Apps are being developed to make this information easy to understand and to guide people to ways to be more energy efficient. “Green Button allows for simple, accurate and meaningful comparisons,” King says.

We’re also seeing many thermostats connected to Wi-Fi, and King says in Texas about 100 HAN (home are network) products have been tested to work with smart meters, with retailers like Best Buy selling them.

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“The key to making this stuff work is standards,” he adds. And many standards are still being developed.

3. Analytics will mature.

This is something more for the back end of utilities, but it’s important. Rather than one check of a meter a month, utilities employing smart meters now have a thousand times more data—and they need to figure out what to do with it. Uses of all that energy data include price analysis, customer profiling, analyzing energy efficiency programs, load modeling and forecasting, demand response evaluation, and more. In short, utilities will be processing a lot more information to bring energy efficiency programs and (hopefully) better services into homes.

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4. Renewables will expand.

Renewable energy sources like solar and wind, while often welcomed by utilities to help power the grid, can also disrupt the grid if there’s too much of it, King says. The price of solar panels have dropped, and as this continues it should spur many more to invest in the technology, which will be cheaper than fossil fuels by 2026, according to U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu.

Too much or too little energy from renewables could spur demand response events, and that will mean pricing incentives and more automated control capability via home area networks to govern this.

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Storage of energy is going to become much more of a topic. This could be via battery technology or even a concept called Vehicle to Grid (V2G), in which energy stored in the batteries of electric vehicles could be used to help power the grid.

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