I had the pleasure this week of attending two conferences, the ESAT conference on energy storage systems in San Diego and the Great Lakes Symposium on Smart Grid in Chicago.  Both conferences were excellent.  But I finished the week with an uneasy feeling that while smart grid advocates and storage advocates are both trying to address the same problems, they are talking about different solutions and not talking enough about each other.

The reluctance of smart grid proponents to talk about storage seems to be a function of the fact that while much of smart grid technology is focused on providing demand response by changing customer behavior (through better communications and price signals), energy storage (at least of the distributed variety) provides demand response by divorcing the customer from load and making the timing of customer electricity demand largely irrelevant to the grid.

Both approaches have merit and will ultimately have their place on the smart grid.  Demand response is an established strategy for leveling load.  There is no question but that the cheapest way to level load is to persuade electricity consumers to turn on and off their electrical appliances, whether they be heavy machinery, air conditioners, or electric vehicles, at exactly the right times.  This is what smart grid advocates euphemistically call “empowering the consumer”.

Yet as a succession of speakers at the smart grid conference talked about how wonderful it is that the smart gird is going to empower consumers, I could not help but wonder whether those speakers appreciated the vaguely Orwellian irony of what they were saying.  Demand response is not, of course, really about empowering anybody.  It is about persuading electricity consumers to behave in a way they would prefer not to behave by imposing on those consumers a system of economic rewards and punishments.  Ivan Pavlov would understand the real function of a smart meter, and so will most consumers.

As a consequence, one of the other recurring themes of the smart grid conference was the need to educate consumers.  More than a few speakers made reference to the long road ahead in educating consumers citing, among other things, the pushback that many utilities have received on smart meter projects.  What is needed, it was suggested, is a smart grid “killer app” that will engage consumers and make them interested in managing their electricity load--let alone in paying for the billions of dollars of improvements needed to make the grid smart.

Unfortunately, smart grid proponents focused on demand response are going to be waiting a long time for their “killer app”.  The problem is not the absence of an interesting gadget or game to engage consumers, but that the whole concept of demand response is, by definition, consumer unfriendly.  Steve Jobs himself could not sell a gadget the purpose of which was to meet the needs of the gadget maker rather than to meet the needs of the consumer.

The smart grid will not find popular acceptance until its proponents can explain to consumers exactly what benefit they will get out of the smart grid today.  Promises of future jobs and cost savings may be valid, but they are unlikely to persuade a skeptical public incline to group utility promises with those of lawyers, used car salesmen and investment bankers.  If the smart grid is going to be sold to average residential electricity customers, it needs to be sold differently.

Selling the smart grid requires that we change the way we think and talk about the problems of the electricity grid today.  The fact that the grid is stressed by variable renewable energy generators and peak loads should not be seen as the fault of consumers for using electricity at the wrong times; it should be seen as technological flaw in the design of the grid itself.  The goal of the smart grid should be to fix that flaw and to provide consumers with safe, reliable electricity on demand.  Consumers should be free to use electricity whenever they like.  It must be the grid that accommodates the consumer, not the other way around.

This is where distributed energy storage technology can help.  By placing energy storage devices out at the tips of the grid, proximate to electricity consumers, distributed energy storage systems really can empower those consumers.  Power will be available to consumers anytime they want it.  Grid operators will wheel the power to the storage units when it makes the most sense for grid operators to wheel it.  The consumer gets the benefit but does not need to be involved in power management. 

More importantly, distributed energy storage units provide a useful and well-understood backup power resource for electricity consumers that can diminish or eliminate power outages.  Today power interruptions cost American electricity consumers as much as $150 billion per year.  Individual electricity consumers can mitigate such outages only by purchasing individual back-up generators or power systems at significant monetary and, often, environmental cost.

A better approach to selling the smart grid is to have utilities take the expense of back-up power (and the lack thereof) off the backs of electricity consumers and provide it as part of basic electricity service.  This may not be as cheap an approach to load leveling as demand response (although accounting for the true cost of demand response is tricky), but it gives consumers something of value that they can appreciate and gives utilities a tangible consumer benefit from the smart grid that they can sell.  In turn, the distributed storage units can become the information hubs of the smart grid, rather than the consumer home.  Privacy issues can be mitigated, distributed generation more easily accommodated, and a vast infrastructure that can provide DC fast charging opportunities for electric vehicles put in place.

Distributed energy storage systems are not just the killer app for energy storage technology; they can be the killer app that gets the entire smart grid off the ground.  Smart grid proponents need better to understand this opportunity and engage more fully with the energy storage industry.

Photo by Geni.org