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January 27, 2009

Smart Grants for Smart Metering

$4.5 billion is the number currently in the House version of the stimulus bill for a 50% match to money spent on smart grid projects. As important as the money are the terms:

"The Secretary shall require as a condition of receiving funding under this subsection that demonstration projects utilize open Internet-based protocols and standards if available."

And

"The Secretary shall establish and maintain a smart grid information clearinghouse in a timely manner which will make data from smart grid demonstration projects and other sources available to the public. As a condition of receiving financial assistance under this subsection, a utility or other participant in a smart grid demonstration project shall provide such information as the Secretary may require to become available through the smart grid information clearinghouse in the form and within the timeframes as directed by the Secretary."

The smart grid puts photons of information in charge of electrons of energy. The result should be better use of existing sources of electrical energy and more effective use of new sources, even if those new sources are relatively small and geographically diverse. Utilities win by smoothing expensive peaks; consumers win both by receiving lower bills and having the opportunity to displace fossil fuels with cheap offpeak electricity for home heating and transportation. Energy independence is advanced by the displacement of imported oil for heating and transportation; CO2 emissions are reduced because peak power is disproportionately generated from fossil fuel. What's not to like?

But most of the makers of the equipment for smart metering are still in a walled garden mindset. They would like their meters to become home control centers and all communication between the meters and the utilities to be via proprietary protocols and private networks. Utilities tend to be leery of the public Internet as well. These grant conditions could provide a powerful incentive to open the smart grid to the kind of innovation that the Internet encourages so well.

Consumers will need a web application both to see their current and past usage and to determine when is a good time to do the wash, run the dryer, or charge up the plugin hybrid electric vehicle. Of course they will also want an option to be informed of especially high or low spot rates by email or text messages. Home control applications will need APIs to access that same data in order to automate the use of electric space and water heating and air conditioners. It's conceivable that your car could disgorge stored energy to the grid when the price is right or that your backup generator could turn on when prices are really high to prevent your buying very expensive electricity and unburden the grid.

All of that good stuff will happen sooner rather than later if "open Internet-based protocols" are used. Hopefully the language stays in the bill and the DOE will not allow the "if available" escape hatch in granting grant applications. I hereby volunteer to find open Internet-based protocols on an as-needed basis.

Also see: The Smart Grid Should Be Stupid.

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