The Smart grid Needs Global Standards

Back when I first refocused my personal blog on “The War Against Oil” there was a lot of talk about the “smart grid.”

Trouble is we aren’t sure what we mean by it. It keeps changing. It’s a broad term. It can be simple of complex.

Al Gore’s term for the smart grid was the “Enernet,” for energy network. The idea was that the grid – enabled by power electronics and software – could be more responsive to supply and demand and could be networked much like the internet.

What is being sold as a “smart meter” may be a start, but it’s only a start. Just like Atari was just the start of the video game revolution.

In theory it can let you monitor your own power use and let the power company charge different rates at different times. You’re supposed to think, “I’ll turn the air conditioning off when it’s 100 degrees outside because that will save me money,” or “I’ll take my bath at 10 PM instead of 6 because the water will cost less to heat then.” Or something.

Some $5 billion in American stimulus money has already been put to work on smart grid development, with distribution management being the primary aim. Even with those modest goals, analysts are claiming it will cost up to $1 trillion to upgrade grid electronics.

But right now all this is taking place below consumers’ radar. A recent survey showed three quarters of consumers have no idea what this story is about. They support it, because the utility companies tell them they should want it, but they don’t want to pay more than $10 per month for it.

The result is a vacuum of misunderstanding filled by activists who conjure up images of Big Brother among people who don’t want the power company knowing what they’re doing with the juice. Opposition to smart grid technology is increasing.

Meanwhile China is racing ahead and thinking bigger than we are.

They’re putting $60 billion into their grid for each of the next 10 years not just to monitor power use but to accelerate their strategy of an “Internet of Things.” That is, everything in the home is connected to the Internet, through the grid, each item you own has an IP number, and you can use Internet technology to automate your home, secure your belongings, and take control of your health.

I’m sure those who object to the current smart meters are now thinking Minority Report. Political objections to futurism may fall on deaf ears in Beijing, but that opposition could come back on smart grid companies unless we have standards and planning, global interoperability, and a solid upgrade path for those who are late to the party, from a scaled industry that can deliver the best possible pricing.

Start with a plain sheet of paper, and list what the smart grid should do, 20 years from now. Then build standards based on those specifications, and make sure it’s a global effort so none of this money is wasted.

We already have some good pieces in place. Zigbee is a good piece. IPV6 is a good piece.

What else needs to go into it, and who is going to be the W3C for this new Smart Grid world?

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Dana Blankenhorn has covered business and technology since 1978. He covered the Houston oil boom of the 1970s, began making his living online in 1985, and launched the Interactive Age Daily, the first daily coverage of e-commerce, in 1994. He has written for a host of off-line and online publications including The Chicago Tribune, Advertising Age, and ZDNet. He has covered PCs, networks, telecommunications, cable technology, Internet commerce, the Internet of Things, Open Source and Health IT, He began covering alternative energy at his personal blog, Danablankenhorn.com, in 2007.

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