Achieving a Sustainable Planet Through Intelligent Energy Modernization

"Earth provides enough to satisfy every man’s need, but not every man’s greed."

 - Mahatma Gandhi

Climate change, sustainability goals and associated initiatives have existed globally in several forms over many decades before gaining traction in the Americas over the past decade.  Several initiatives –- cultural, political and economic -– have initiated industry-specific goals with strong links to sustainable goals of a greener planet. While each of those initiatives has its own merit, none of them have a stronger potential for impact than the smart grid initiatives introduced in 2008 by the U.S. DoE and ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Acts) programs. The very emphasis behind smart grid modernization was to improve energy-efficiency behavior of customers, improve grid reliability to reduce unnecessary energy losses, ensure integration of renewable power resources, decentralize generation sources, clean transportation and ultimately help reach environmental goals.

The purpose of this multi-part article is to analyze and share viewpoints on the progress of smart grid initiatives specific to achieving the goals of sustainability in the next decade.

Traditionally, power delivery discussions start with generation, followed by a shift of focus to the customer side. We will examine this topic in a dynamic inside-out manner starting from the customer end. Firstly, we intend to discuss the progress as well as the challenges faced by utilities implementing smart grid initiatives to promote sustainable, energy-efficient behavior in customers’ homes.

Sustainability, in our opinion, is not a strategy or an operational move or a national policy -– it’s truly a way of life. Policy, business strategy and incentives can help aid sustainable initiatives but the true of success of sustainability programs is to reach the minds of the people and society as the whole. Sustainability programs cannot be built just on environmentally focused individuals but must also account for people who question the value of sustainability programs –- the skeptics and non-adopters. From that perspective, smart grid initiatives have provided an excellent opportunity and a platform to develop, share and listen to feedback from customers on sustainability goals. It is important to note that we are in a beginning phase of this journey and we expect opinions to evolve, behaviors to change and technologies to transform as our sustainability journey continues.

Over the past two years, there has been tremendous focus on installing smart meters in customer homes through pilot programs. Along with smart meters, other technology advancements deployed include Home Area Networks (HANs), in-home energy management devices (IHDs) and in some cases, smart appliances that react to energy signals and usage. These technologies provided a platform for utilities to send signals to customers about varied tier-rated programs based on time-of-use and delivered lower or higher rates for energy use depending on the time of the day. This new smart grid concept termed "Demand Response" spawned a whole new sub-industry. The notion of demand response was promoted as the potential “killer app” for the evolution of energy efficiency.

As wonderful as design and deployment of new technologies that work together to achieve a common goal is, the tricky part is to understand the impact these new technologies have on customer behavior.  In addition to understanding customer behavior, it is important for utilities to understand the layers and processes required for the common consumer to receive any benefit from modified behavior around energy efficiency. These layers and processes include:

·         Sharing awareness about smart programs, with emphasis on sustainability/energy efficiency goals

·         Installation of smart meters, energy efficient devices (smart appliances, HAN-IHDs) In Home Devices

·         Providing online tools for customers to watch real-time energy usage and promote energy-aware decision making

In examining these three processes, we have observed varied ranges of customer responses over the past few years. The ranges include categories we describe as:

·       a) Passive

·       b) Value-conscious

·       c) Active non-acceptance

·       d) Go-green

The passive category seems to reflect on the lack of energy-efficiency programs in a strongly industrialized society.  People in this category tend to want to stick to the status-quo in energy usage without having to understand or analyze new concepts.

The value-conscious category is the most pragmatic one, where customers are receptive to savings, or cost-driven smart energy efficiency initiatives.  The other two categories, active non-acceptance and go-green, represent the opposite extremes of the users’ thought spectrum.

For the people in value-conscious and go-green categories, the possibilities of sustainable behavior are tremendous. In the future, zero-net-energy homes will be a reality for people in this category. The homes will generate enough energy to sustain their needs.

The platform has been set to influence customer behavior and the broad customer profiles are understood, but what needs to be won still is the battle on value proposition. There is a free-market philosophy built into the expectation of dynamically altering our energy use. We sometimes have to compromise our convenience to take advantage of lower cost programs. Customers still believe there is rigidity in regulations, less transparency in the way utilities invest in energy efficiency and less clarity in future support of environmental policies. Due to these beliefs, there is an understandable reluctance on their part to wholeheartedly embrace these energy efficiency initiatives. We as an industry are making continued progress to address this reluctance, but a better job needs to be done. The challenge is much bigger one than a technology change or an engineering innovation.  It is important for us to design, deliver, and communicate innovative energy delivery models that provide more transparency and confidence to the end users. Through these new means of energy delivery, consumers will adopt sustainable, energy-efficient practices in higher volumes and help us cross the tipping point of sustainable energy-efficiency practices.  Only then can we expect the monetary efforts of smart grid to pay off with environmental benefits.

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