Monday, April 11, 2011

Day 1 of UTC Smart Grid Policy Summit: Perspectives from a Utility Newcomer

The Utilities Telecom Council 2011 Smart Grid Policy Summit marked my first public foray on the utilities industry, and I am pleased to report that my interests in the Smart Grid are still very much alive and well. For some personal background, I became interested in the Smart Grid last summer when I was assigned to do some research at my previous job about claims that smart meters were causing harmful interference to wireless devices (security alarms, garage door openers, etc.). This took me on a whirlwind tour of smart meter controversies from the consumer perspective-- EMF safety concerns, personal energy usage information privacy threats, wireless interference in the unlicensed 900 MHz ISM band, fears that aliens would invade homes through smart meters... You get the idea--consumers have some wild imaginations! Anyway, some of my research in this project was focused on using licensed vs. unlicensed airwaves for smart meters, which brought me to my next smart grid project for my Wireless Communications class last fall. In this project, I continued to research issues surrounding private vs. commercial wireless networks and licensed vs. unlicensed spectrum for smart grid and smart meter networks. For the 2011 spring semester, University of Colorado started offering a new class on Energy Communications Networks, which I am now taking and really enjoying. This brings me to my current project, a research paper on the potential for rural electric cooperatives and rural telecom companies to collaborate on smart grid projects (which I have written about here). During my research I came across the UTC Smart Grid Policy Summit, which I noticed was 2 blocks from my house and at my favorite hotel in the city--so I just had to sign up! Anyway, on to the Summit. I was particularly interested in hearing and learning more about the following topics, which were basically all discussed during today's sessions:
  • The licensed vs. unlicensed spectrum debate
  • How to get utilities and telecom providers to collaborate effectively and with mutual trust
  • Mitigating the often unreasonable consumer fears about smart meters to ensure a smooth transition to the utility industry of the future
  • Any issues, challenges and accomplishments specific to rural smart grid deployment--and is this all important from a rural telecom perspective?
I hope my rural telecom industry readers find this information useful and interesting, even if you are not specifically involved in smart grid projects (I predict you will be soon, however, to some extent at least). I am going to do a detailed review of the first two sessions from today as I found them to be particularly relevant to rural telecom providers. 

Keynote Speaker: Joe Rigby, Pepco CEO
The Summit opened with an optimistic yet honest overview of Pepco's smart grid deployment efforts. Rigby emphasized the importance of taking a cautious, staged deployment of smart meter functionalities to prevent widespread misinformation about the transition from the utility of the last 100 years to the utility of the future. Rigby discussed the importance of collaborating with all stakeholders and taking advantage of all channels to engage and educate consumers on the value of the smart grid. So, what is the value of the smart grid anyway? The value proposition must be communicated in a way that engages consumers, and several clear smart grid values include: improved energy reliability, greater consumer understanding of energy usage, seamless integration of renewables and electric vehicles, and reduced operating costs that translate to customer savings. The challenges facing smart grid deployment are also significant: resetting consumer expectations, Cyber Security ("a war that will never be over"), data privacy, meter accuracy, perceived EMF/RF safety concerns, securing sufficient bandwidth for utilities, and forging relationships with new partners, suppliers and competitors. Overall, Rigby's speech was very informative and it set the tone for the day as many of these issues were discussed in greater detail by the panelists in the following sessions.

Session 1: What's Next in Smart Grid Policy: Leaders Forecast the Big Issues Ahead
Panelists: William Moroney (Moderator, UTC), Philip Moeller (FERC), Eddie Lazarus (FCC), Henry Kenchington (US Dept. of Energy), Tony Clark (NARUC and North Dakota PSC)
The purpose of this session was to identify key smart grid policy issues and discuss how policy decisions will impact different aspects of smart grid deployment and implementation.  From my telecom policy background perspective, this session was very valuable to me because I was able to learn about the utility policy process and pending issues directly from utility policymakers. The panelist from the FCC kept me in my comfort zone by discussing the smart grid initiative in the National Broadband Plan and a recent NOI about network reliability (which I plan to read and discuss soon)--adding that utilities have traditionally been reluctant to work with commercial telecom providers due to network reliability issues (a barrier that I hope to see broken by rural electric co-op/rural telecom provider collaboration). The DOE panelist discussed Recovery Act smart grid projects that are underway, saying that these initiatives will hopefully help remove some of the uncertainty about smart grid benefits, costs and risks. The remarks that really stuck with me were from Tony Clark of NARUC and North Dakota PSC (a rural perspective!), who emphasized that all utilities--telecom included--are converging, which will require major educational efforts for both consumers and regulators. He added that cost is the greatest challenge for states, and used the example of USF reform and its potential cost burden to states. The best question asked to the panel was "What problems does the smart grid really solve?" From the consumer perspective, there needs to be a clear answer to this question or consumers will not accept the smart grid. A great example is broadband--millions of Americans still do not adopt broadband even though they have access simply because they do not understand the relevance or value of broadband. Interestingly, the smart grid may actually help some broadband non-adopters to "see the light," and therefore help increase broadband adoption along the road to achieving broader smart grid goals--but it will require concentrated efforts by all smart grid stakeholders to educate consumers. Finally, the panelists discussed how important it is for consumers to educate themselves on the values of the smart grid, which requires specific, tailored information from reliable and trustworthy sources--in voices that are loud and reliable enough to overpower the widespread misinformation about the smart grid.

Session 2: Managing the Technology Mix: Building, Buying or Sharing Smarter Utility Communications Networks
Panelists: Mike Oldak (Moderator, UTC), Karl Nebbia (NTIA), Julius Knapp (FCC), Jeff Nichols (Sempra Energy Utilities), Mark Madden (Alcatel-Lucent), Rilck Noel (Verizon), Narasimha Chari (Tropos Networks)
Due to my past research projects about wireless networks and the smart grid, I was definitely very excited about this panel--and it did not disappoint. Basically, utilities need spectrum. There will be an estimated 1 billion "smart devices" in the near future that are all communicating with each other and the utility--if this doesn't convince you that utilities and telecom are converging, I don't know what will! The obvious question is: where will utilities get this spectrum? Wireless providers, the government and broadcasters are already fighting like rabid dogs over every last megahertz--everyone wants it, everyone has valid reasons to want it, and not everyone will end up with beachfront spectrum property. The FCC panelist added that there are no more "vacant lots," and difficult, comprehensive spectrum management efforts are definitely necessary. Like rural telecom providers, utilities are often disadvantaged in spectrum auctions, and sharing arrangements can be difficult to acquire and negotiate. Rural utilities are especially unlikely to get their own licensed spectrum. The Alcatel-Lucent panelist added that each utility faces specific geographic, demographic and infrastructure needs and challenges. Basically, ensuring that utilities have access to communication network assets will require creativity, imagination, money, and will include some conflict and drama (Rural telcos- how can you turn this into a profitable business opportunity? Think about it!) Some promising opportunities exist in both the TV White Spaces and the 700 MHz Public Safety spectrum, pending regulatory approval. Finally, I was intrigued by the comment that utilities should not "put all their eggs in one basket" in terms of communications networks--they need multiple types of network technologies with different levels of reliability and different options for redundancy. I see some real opportunities for rural telecom providers to step up with their reliable and high quality fiber networks to collaborate with utilities to meet some of these critical communications network needs. Rural electric co-ops probably cannot afford to build entire networks from scratch--with redundancy--in terms of both time and money. Ultimately, there is no single solution that will work everywhere and appeal to all utilities, but communications networks are literally the foundation for which the smart grid will grow and flourish--and they have to come from somewhere.

Lunch with Rep. Rick Boucher, and Afternoon Sessions on Building Customer Acceptance and Interoperability Standards
Following the two fascinating morning sessions was an equally fascinating lunchtime address by former Representative Boucher (D-VA), a true leader and expert on energy and technology. Boucher recalled a story that I either heard or read recently: what would Edison and Bell say if they saw the state of the energy and telecom industry today? Bell's mind would be blown by how telecom has evolved in the last 100 years, but Edison would find the energy industry basically the same as when he left it. Boucher emphasized the many benefits of the smart grid, from demand response to a burgeoning new home appliance market to the impact on the environment. He also highlighted the challenges--financial cost of upgrading the entire utility industry, consumer criticism of smart meters, finding adequate spectrum for networks, and developing interoperability standards. He discussed the controversial debate about the D Block and the potential for using the TV White Spaces in Rural Areas. As Vilsack's speech at the NTCA Legislative and Policy conference was empowering for rural telecom advocates, Boucher's speech was equally empowering for smart grid advocates.

The last two sessions of the day-- Building Consumer Acceptance and Interoperability Standards--were interesting as well and full of lively debate, but as I am pressed for time right now (and exhausted), I will end this post before it gets any longer. Tomorrow will be very exciting for me--most of the sessions are about Cyber Security, a topic that I am studying in my Energy Communications Network class at this very moment. Ever since I read Cyber War by Richard Clarke last summer, I have been pretty obsessed with Cyber Security, so I am sure to find tomorrow's sessions extremely valuable and informative.

One last thing--today was also my first public foray into the wonderful world of Twitter, and it was fun to share my thoughts about the conference via social media. I am still hoping that more of my readers will "follow" @RuralTelComment on Twitter!  

Cassandra Heyne

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