Discover BrilliantNext up, a discussion of trends in energy industry smart-grid policy. Starring:

  • Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Rob Pratt, Staff Scientist and Manager of Gridwise Activities
  • Gridwise Council, Alison Silverstein
  • Snohomish County PUD, Jessica Wilcox, Government Affairs

Wilcox (who is, I add inappropriately, gorgeous): Most people on Capitol Hill don’t even know what a smart grid is. Even the people writing the bills that include smart grid provisions don’t understand or much care about it.

The problem is smart grid is getting defined much too narrowly. It needs to be expanded to include renewables, conservation, responses to climate change, etc. People need to reach out to legislators and explain this stuff to them, bump it up their priority list.

I think I’m in love.

Silverstein: Legislators believe that the 2005 electric industry bill gave the industry what it needs; it’s too soon to come back to the trough.

Wilcox: Legislators are willing to include this stuff. They love solutions to climate change — they’re vote getters. We just need to help them with basic education.

Pratt: The educational level of legislators has gone up quite a bit, from zero. So the news isn’t totally bad.

Tax credits for smart grid investments were in earlier version of the bill, and even on that we got jammed up trying to figure out what counts. And pretty soon grid issues and demand response issues are going to get swamped by renewables — they get all the headlines.

Silverstein: Just because we’re interested in demand response, grids, renewables, etc., doesn’t mean that legislation is going to happen. We’ve been fighting for this stuff for years, to no effect.

Wilcox: Don’t forget that political power is shifting, radically. Legislation is going to move much more quickly after the next congressional elections. So we really need to keep the pressure up right now.

Silverstein: You can’t just point to one or two provisions and expect them to be a magic bullet. There’s a giant, complex web of stuff involved.

If you want renewables or clean air or any of these other happy things, you have to spend more money on distribution and transmission. None of this stuff is cheap. You need policies that encourage steady expansion and continued research. And you need social consensus that it’s OK for electricity prices to go up some.

Most research is done by private vendors, and they’ll only do it if they can make a profit — we need to enable that.

Pratt: It’s crucial to reveal price information and enable people to act on it.

Silverstein: The amount of money utilities are allowed to invest in new technology has been artificially held low. We pay more for telecom now, but we get infinitely better technology. We’re willing to throw away a cell phone every two years, but grid tech is all but permanent.

Everybody thinks somebody else should pay. But you’re going to pay, either as a taxpayer, a utility customer, or as a consumer. What’s the most effective way?

Question: Are customers ready to think about value rather than rates?

Silverstein: For customers, today, yes. For some other policy-makers, no. And in reality, no. We don’t care only about price on cars or cell phones, why would we do that in a real electricity market?

Wilcox: For us, mostly rates. But it’s changing. People are signing up for green power programs. Our surveys are showing a slow shift, just beginning, heading to value.