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The Utility of the Future
Jon Lebkowsky, 16 May 07
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Austin's Clean Energy Venture Summit included a session on the Utility of the Future, including Roger Duncan from Austin Energy, Robert Howard from Pacific Gas and Electric, Paul Thomas of Green Mountain Energy, Brad Gammon from IBM, and consultant Alison Silverstein. They described an energy Internet or network of energy networks, including addresses for all outlets and devices and robust metadata systems for monitoring and regulation, optimizing overall efficiency. It won't be easy to implement - it's a complicated problem to combine an energy bus and an IT bus for every structure. There's also major load swings we're just beginning to understand, according to Duncan, such as load reduction through pervasive implementation of energy-saving light bulbs and load increase (or shift) as pluggable hybrids start appearing. Howard foresees plugin hybrids serving as alternative reserve energy supplies as well, once we've solved the (not insigificant) problem of energy storage.

It's an interesting time to be a public utility, with the paradigm for the transmission and delivery of utility services at the edge of significant change that, while inevitable, is stalled somewhat by the inherent risk-averse conservatism of most utility companies - Austin Energy and Pacific Gas & Electric are exceptionally forward-looking, already thinking about the relationship of energy to information, advocating for the consumer and envisioning new services, new ways to use energy. They can see the high level need for management, security and monitoring of a pervasive energy network that will offer many new opportunities for innovation - but will also present new risks owing to its complexity and potential vulnerabilities. As they talked about monitoring energy use, I could imagine an analogy to the kind of perpetual-beta, heuristic iterative "Web 2.0" development that is driven by user behavior. Similarly, by monitoring the behaviors of energy consumers, utilities will be able to adjust delivery to optimize efficiency.

Alison Silverstein is not so sure we'll even have utility companies in the way we currently think of them. In the future we can expect to have collaborative, cooperative two-way energy networks where consumers are also producers (another Web 2.0 concept!), producing energy with for home use and feeding some of it back to the grid. There's a notion of interoperatibility, an ability to exchange information and meaning between consumers and devices with little or no extra effort on the consumer's part.

Given the complexity of the transition path, it'll take time and require clear incentives and significant research and development (which is already happening, and which is why entrepreneurs and venture capitalists are joining this discussion). While those who are focused on the energy future seek policies and promote businesses that will make it happen, Roger Duncan says our short term future still depends on natural gas and coal, and an increasing focus on energy efficiency (acknowledging that we waste a LOT through systemic inefficiencies). Wind will be an important source of energy in ten years, and solar (facilitated by better nanotechnology) in twenty.

Meanwhile we need a twofold focus on education: better programs to produce the scientists and engineers who will do the research and development that will transform our energy use, and better public education so that the average citizen shares some of the understanding that was pervasive at this particular conference.

The Clean Energy Venture Summit was produced by Austin's pioneering Clean Energy Incubator, working with Austin Energy.

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I'm not excited about the prognostications of power utility firms.

Since the 'Lightbulb in Every Farm' program of Westinghouse, through the graft battles of industrial and suburban rates and metering, while voting public bond after bond to underwrite coal, nuclear, natural gas and Jet-A machinery plus building their infrastructure, power utilities have only been innovative while sending us a fatter bill or using price to push oil-crunch costs onto regional business and private consumers.

Over many years, power utilities have merely entertained us with futurist pledges that have never been delivered. I've heard it all before. A link to my rant.

Power Utilities remain entrenched in a psuedo-market. Our best hope is that 'distributed power generation' will belong to its owners and are kept arms length from utility managers.

Our energy farms, our rooftops and hilltops, our upcoming regenerative 'hybrids', our future diversity must never to managed or regulated by these firms. The intertie challenges are not so great that a new marketplace is impossible.

I recommend that we keep the utilities restrained or we remove their privileges until they are deregulated in an open marketplace.

Posted by: Brian Hayes on 16 May 07



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