The smart grid requires smart consumers

February 10, 2010: 10:00 AM ET

Next-gen energy distribution depends on getting users engaged and educated.

By Will West, CEO and co-founder, Control4

West: The smart grid is good for you, and a little fun, too. Photo: Control4.

The Smart Grid—the next-generation energy distribution network now being rolled out—offers something for everyone: Greater transparency and lower costs for consumers. New opportunities for technology providers, appliance and consumer electronics makers, and power utilities. A smaller carbon footprint for the planet.

But there's a catch: none of it will happen unless consumers actually embrace and use smart grid capabilities. It's the job of companies throughout the value chain to make sure that they do.

Electricity 2.0

Consumers love smart networks. Just ask any passer-by what makes the wider bandwidth mobile networks better than the first generation networks (once they put down their smartphone). They also love having choice, transparency, and control over the networks they use, from comparison-shopping for broadband to tailoring their mobile usage to different rate plans. From this perspective, both our communications networks and the people who use them are as smart as can be.

Energy distribution is another story. Electricity flows on demand, but that's about it; there's no role for the consumer beyond plugging things in, turning them on, and paying the bills.

The smart grid is changing this picture. By adding intelligence, communication, and control throughout the network, the smart grid enables providers to deliver energy throughout the country more efficiently and reliably to meet demand. Meanwhile, consumers can monitor their consumption—and their bill—in real-time and automatically manage their usage to reduce waste and save money. But we've got work to do to make this vision a reality.

Enabling the smart grid

Money is the easy part. The U.S. Department of Energy is awarding $3.4 billion in stimulus grants toward upgrading the nation's entire energy grid; $4.7 billion more in private funds will be invested through the program. Beyond the stimulus, entrepreneurs are bringing their own resources to bear as smart grid-related markets begin to achieve critical mass.

As with any emerging technology market, there are standards to be set for the grid and in the home. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is working on the broader framework. In the home, ZigBee has become the de facto standard for wireless communication among smart grid-enabled appliances, devices, and control units. Industry groups will meet to discuss formal standards later this year—in all likelihood, following the reality which has by then been established.

In homes new and established consumer electronics companies are developing retail products and packages for measuring, monitoring, and controlling power consumption by smart grid-enabled devices.

We're encouraged by what we see happening in the product planning at major appliance and electronics manufacturers.  They are thinking about the issues of energy management, creating new ways for their devices to operate, and working to integrate control technologies such as ours (Control4 Energy Systems, a division of Control4, delivers solutions that enable utilities an consumers to better manage and control energy use and costs) so that future products will connect to the smart grid, be more energy efficient, and create a smart ecosystem within the home.

Power utilities will help the smart grid achieve scale through subsidies, installation programs, and receivers with built-in smart grid technologies.

But that's only part of the picture. For our next-generation energy distribution network to reach its fullest potential, it's not enough to make Smart Grid technologies available to consumers; we also have to make them convenient, easy to use—and yes, just a little bit sexy.

Turning on the smart grid—and the consumers who use it

While companies throughout the value chain have important roles to play in delivering smart solutions, it's clear that consumers are the lynch pin—and they've proved a tough sell for similar technologies in the past. Programmable thermostats offer substantial cost savings with a minimal impact on comfort, yet only a small fraction of the consumers who own them ever actually program them. Power strips prevent TVs, rechargers, and other "vampires" from drawing current when not in use—but who wants to keep getting down on the floor to turn them off and on?

As consumer electronics companies already know, ease of use is essential to the success of any new category. The first step is to make the smart grid painless for consumers: integrate everything so energy consumption throughout the house can be managed through a single interface.

Engagement and automation are both key—while simply providing information about usage can help consumers save money in the short term, they tend to lose interest and return to their old habits. To keep them engaged and make the smart grid a seamless part of their lives, consumers should be able to monitor personal usage over time and compare it to past usage through the same multi-purpose interface they also use to access weather reports, grocery lists, family calendars, and other daily information.

The most crucial piece will be letting the consumer set up rules for how and when specific devices modify their power consumption; this will deliver savings that are both larger in scale, and more sustainable over time. Direct control ensures that consumers will not feel that something is being taken away from them—as when a brownout suddenly cuts power to their TV. Instead, they can decide for themselves how to alter their consumption in situations of limited availability.

By showing consumers just how easy, convenient, interactive, and even fun to use smart grid technologies can be, we can keep them engaged while helping them save money. And with consumers on-board, the smart grid can deliver its full benefits for consumers, technology providers, manufacturers, retailers, utilities, and the planet alike.

West is CEO of Control4, a Salt Lake City-based maker of home automation systems.

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