When you see the terms, “Smart Grid” or “Smart Meter,” do you want to reach for your mouse and click the back arrow? We have a running dialog going on at the Electronic Design offices. The folks who keep track of Web searches think it’s a hot topic. I have a cover story coming up in March about companies that are actually making money out of what been rolled out so far, but I’m coming to hate those two terms, which I started writing about in the summer of ’09, when EPRI released its Smart-Grid recommendations to NIST. I think that, in general, the “smart” adjective is overworked when it refers to anything that has a microcontroller in it. Pretty soon, maybe by next CES, if there is one, we’re going to have an announcement of a “smart” toilet seat that raises or lowers itself on the basis of body probes of the person approaching it. (Note to self: Call patent attorney.)
When it comes to upgrading the infrastructure that delivers electricity, I think "smart meter" has already run out of gas, and "smart grid" will lose its cachet shortly. What then? "Microgrid" is up-and-coming, but I'm not sure yet about what other new buzzwords to refer to the modernization of electrical generation, distribution, and use we're going to have. Microgrids are a nice place to start, because we have all the pieces.
That will involve some paradigm shifts. With advanced metering, the popular (negative) image was all about accuracy (What? Compared to counting the turns of a reluctance motor?) and being able to switch customers off remotely.
With microgrids, which limit transmission losses, provide local energy storage, and isolate blackouts, it's going to be, "how come the rich people have all the microgrids and the rest of us don’t? (Er, remember that meter you had them take out?)
"Demand Management" could turn out to be a buzzword, but I think the concept needs a catchier mouthful of syllables. What we really need is a whole new jargon for what energy traders do, because they're going to be setting everybody’s electricity rates, which is what's supposed to be going to manage demand: Gas goes up; you don't drive so often. Electricity goes up at 4 pm, you don't run the dishwasher until later. In fact, you TELL the dishwasher not to run until later. The economists already have related terms-- "elastic/elasticity -- we just need a noun to go with them. My colleague, Joe Desposito, thinks “elastic energy” might work, but I’m not sure it really captures the image.
So I’m watching the companies on the leading edge. Maxim, for sure; they bought Teridian and they’ve worked with Electricité Réseau Distribution France (ERDF) and Sagemcom, on the G3-PLC specification to promote open-endedness and interoperability among smart grid implementations. Since G3-PLC is the only narrow-band-PLC standard that supports IPv6, that’s a significant element in tying together all the interoperating components of industrial microgrids. I’m also watching Cisco, which is looking far beyond microgrids into the whole generation, transmission, distribution and billing structure. Then there’s Silver Spring Networks, about to come out of its pre-IPO silent period. They've got a lot of Kleiner_Perkins money behind them. And GE has a lot of new stuff – mostly related to lighting control – going on around Cleveland (Rambus
is there too). Go, Rustbelt!
It’s all very exciting. I just hope we can ditch the “Smart Grid” appellation soon.