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How To Really Achieve a Smart Grid

May 21, 2013  • David Monsma & Charles M. Firestone

The concept of a smart grid has been with us for a couple of decades now. When implemented, advanced energy networks have the potential to transform the current electricity grid. What has been dominated by a linear flow of electricity from producers to disempowered consumers with little exchange of information can become an integrated ICT network where energy, information and economic value are exchanged at all points on the energy system. Innovation in smart energy networks allows new products, services and consumer choices through the use of information technologies, but requires an element of implementation that has been extremely slow to realize.

There are many reasons for this, but one important barrier is the lack of closer coordination and shared objectives among the various actors from utilities to telecoms to software companies and so on. What’s more, our grid has evolved under a complex patchwork of regulatory and market conditions that lead to fragmented regional energy markets and many obstacles to developing coherent national business models to bring these new technologies to market.

To address this, the Aspen Institute Communications and Society Program and Energy and Environment Program collaborated to convene leaders and experts from both sectors – energy and communications – to collectively reimagine smart grids and learn what is needed to advance its implementation where feasible and possible to do so. We began with the vision of Bracken Hendricks at the Center for American Progress, who sees the linear grid becoming a true ICT network where generation, transmission and distribution, and the end use of electricity each have elements of supply, network management, and demand. In short, the grid becomes a transactional platform where competitive forces can enter more efficiently and in new ways, to perform different functions, serve different markets, or achieve other economic and social ends.

With surprising agreement across a broad variety of energy and communications representatives, including both government and the private sector, a basic early-draft vision emerged: To create open-access information-enabled electricity networks for multi-directional transactions in generation, distribution, and use optimized to be clean, promote innovation, enable consumer choice, be flexible, and continue to provide safe, affordable, reliable, and secure electricity.

There are a number of ways to move toward this vision.  Some are major policy and political efforts, such as elevating the dialogue through the White House and other forums on related topics. The Aspen Institute Clean Energy Forum, for one, will take up the topic this summer in Aspen.  Another is to begin the process of creating an open-access tariff in the distribution of energy similar to what exists today in some wholesale transmission markets. An Open Access Distribution Tariff would be a kind of network protocol to allow for the exchange of energy and energy services at the last mile.

The stakes are large – for our localities, our energy infrastructure, our nation’s competitiveness, and the health of our planet. While there are many conversations about the topic, we believe that by bringing the constituencies of the Communications and Society Program together with those of the Energy and Environment Program, we can anticipate the future, find and lessen the barriers to implementation and begin to fulfill the opportunities that smart grids offer.