PERSPECTIVES


The biggest game changer for smart grid over the next five years

Patty Durand discusses how the smart grid is critical to empowering future energy consumers, and what we could expect to see in coming years.

The Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC) is a consumer-focused nonprofit organization working to foster mutual understanding between industry and consumers regarding the creation of a next-generation energy infrastructure in the United States.

What have you been focusing on at the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative recently?

We just released the second of two studies on low-income consumers in the United States. It’s an in-depth research study on how to reach this specific demographic, to understand what they think and know about energy, and how to reach them via digital communication, among other topics. The findings are very interesting and surprising. We also have consumer educational work we will be delivering soon, and we’re branching out into new work on policy, where we are doing more to educate and inform US policymakers on the benefits of a smarter grid and what consumers think and what they want.

What is one of the main tools you use to educate and inform consumers?

Last fall, we launched a dedicated consumer-facing website called whatissmartgrid.org and we’ve seen a lot of traction so far. Our goal is to have 1 million visitors by the end of the year. The site is extremely consumer-friendly and interactive, and we’ve included infographics and videos to appeal to many different consumer segments. People can easily learn about different topics related to the smart grid, such as smart meters, renewables, electric vehicles, the environment, saving money and so on. There’s also an innovative timeline that shows how technology has advanced over human history, leading to a smarter grid.

What interested you in working in the smart grid area—specifically with consumers?

I used to work in corporate IT but wanted to move to something more focused on community and society, specifically related to conservation. I transitioned from business to nonprofit, eventually working as Director of the Sierra Club in Georgia, involved in projects related to climate change. Once I found out about the smart grid, I was hooked. It seems like an extremely effective way to support moving to a sustainable energy system. Later, I had the opportunity to learn much more about the smart grid when I worked with the Georgia Institute of Technology. When the position at SGCC became available, it read like my ideal job description—business, technology, nonprofit, consumer and conservation—it was a great fit.

Is there any particular issue about the smart grid that you hear the most from consumers?

Over the past several years, we’ve polled US energy consumers and, more recently, low-income consumers. We ask them about what interests them most about the smart grid, and what they see as the biggest benefits and concerns. One thing we learned was that many people have a strong interest in a cleaner energy portfolio. Our most recent pulse survey showed that 60 percent of consumers would like their utility to have a cleaner energy portfolio—and the same percentage said they would be willing to pay for it.

What do you see as the biggest benefit of smart meters and smart grid technologies for consumers?

The most important thing I see happening is consumer empowerment. Consumers will have access to data that will enable them to control their bills, but that’s just the crack in the door. Once you open that door and walk through, it’s a whole new world of online access to programs and services that utilities can develop to help save consumers money in the long run. Utilities are facing added pressure and a need to make significant investments for things like digital devices, meeting cleaner energy mandates and the costs of dealing with increased renewables on the grid. While utilities are finding ways to deal with the additional costs, consumers also need a way to control those increasing costs coming to them—so choice and visibility are important benefits.

What do you see as the biggest game changer for smart grid in the next five years?

Energy storage at an affordable cost is going to be a real game changer, and likely will launch solar energy into the stratosphere. We’re also seeing a lot more consumer empowerment with energy data. I see many utilities doing amazing things, and we’re starting to see states taking charge—empowering energy consumers with retail choice in some states, for example, and putting together interesting product and service bundling in others. I think in five years we’ll see a vastly different landscape, if the momentum we are seeing continues.

What does the future energy consumer look like?

If I had to look into a crystal ball, I would say the future energy consumers are independent, aware and empowered. They will be able to go online or use their smartphone to manage energy in the same way they can bank online or search for good restaurants. They’ll be able to use apps to view their bill and energy use, manage heating, cooling, lights—everything will be more connected. They will be able to purchase green energy for themselves, they’ll be producing their own energy via solar, and have affordable energy storage.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

I like feeling that I’m part of an important change that is going to make the United States more sustainable. I also like knowing that consumers are gaining choice and empowerment and that both utilities and consumers are sharing in the decision making.

You mentioned your passion for conservation, what are you driving these days?

I drive a Nissan LEAF and I love it, for obvious cost-saving and sustainable reasons, but there have been some unexpected benefits. When you accelerate from a stop, there’s no resistance—the car takes off like a rocket. The other nice surprise was the ability to ride in the HOV lane with just one person in the car, which is especially important in Atlanta. There are options like rental cars and car-share programs for long distances, so range isn’t a huge issue. I would love a Tesla at some point in the future but, until that’s a possibility, I’m happy to keep driving what I’ve got.


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