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Can China Leapfrog the US When Implementing a Smart Grid? An Interview with Don McConnell, Battelle Energy Technology

By Jon T. Brock, President Desert Sky Group, LLC

April 28, 2010


The smart grid has gone global.  It may mean different things to different stakeholders and may also vary based on geography.  Cultural differences across the globe will impact how consumers adopt what we as practitioners are calling the “smart grid.”    

I recently had the good fortune to interview a smart grid luminary, Don McConnell, President for Battelle Energy Technology on issues related to the smart grid, differences by global geography, and ideas on how to improve a smart grid implementation for success.  Don will be joining myself and three other industry luminaries at the Smart Grid Road Show ( to be held May 11-12, 2010 in Cincinnati, Ohio to discuss in more detail smart grid experiences and future looks.  For now, I trust you enjoy this interview with Don.


JB:  Let me start by asking you to share with our readers the background of Battelle and its role in the smart grid world.

DM:  Battelle has been involved with a broad series of energy issues for a long period of time and two different vantage points.  One is that through our role in management of six of the Department of Energy’s National Laboratories. Through the labs we have been engaged with development of many of the fundamental aspects of the smart grid going back to actually the late 1990’s.  Our efforts span the development of the Phaser grid observation systems that was done by the Pacific Northwest National Lab to the design and execution execution of the GridWise demand management trial, to the Enterprise Demand Dispatch engine developed by Battelle Energy. Battelle Energy Technology is the commercial side of our activities on the smart grid. 

Across our portfolio today, we're engaged in aspects of visualization and real time monitoring for transmission all the way through demand management and real time integration of renewables through distribution systems.  It's fairly a wide swath with a particular focus now on the commercial side on the demand response and distributed resource integration.

JB:  What geographies does Battelle play in?  Is it limited to the United States or is it a global look.

DM:  Battelle is engaged in smart grid activities in multiple markets.  In the U.S, we are engaged both in the east and then western grids in projects spanning the implementation of real-time interactive hierarchical smart grids from the wholesale level down to the utility and from the utility to the individual consumer.  In China, Battelle Energy’s smart grid leadership has been engaged in planning for the smart grid in China at the strategic level.  Our smart grid planning for renewables integration for major renewable portfolio standards development has focused on island power applications such as Ireland in terms of integration of renewables and distributed resources.  Our current efforts are dominantly focused on North America.

JB:  You may have answered this in the first question, but what part of the smart grid does Battelle play in?  The areas are policy, generation, transmission, distribution, and the consumer.

DM:  The area that we deal with here dominantly real-time management of transmission, distribution, and the consumer interface with a particular focus on how the consumer interacts with the emerging smart grid system.

JB:  That's going to be a hot topic going forward.

DM:  The consumer interface is one of the major challenges for implementation of smart grid systems, particularly as the current grid serves consumers so reliably and well that consumers largely need not pay attention to their interface with the grid.

JB:   Absolutely.  From your perspective, what are the main objectives of smart grid in the electric industry?

DM:  I think if you look at a smart grid and what it can provide, the implementation of intelligence at a distance and two way communication as to the status of the grid enables increased awareness as to what challenges an electrical network is facing on a near real time basis. This in turn allows improved operational effectiveness and efficiency as far as the utility is concerned and improves experience for the customer, especially in avoiding and responding to upsets to service. Basically, it enables a system that is much better at balancing how the grid system operates and therefore remains responsive to the needs of customer for reliable and affordable power while avoiding both overbuilding for contingencies and the risk power shortages. 

I think the key to achieving these goals is the capacity to employ intelligence at a distance to enable fundamental changes on how we manage electrical power and how consumers react to management of power.

JB:  So do you think that is different when you look at a utility vs. a consumer?

DM:  I think the value proposition differs substantially on both sides of the meter. To some extent, we haven't quite paid as much attention to that as what we might have wanted. 

To the utility, there is a whole spectrum of benefits of a smart grid that allows for better situational awareness, the ability to have a more integrated response in real time, the ability to integrate distributed resources to avoid congestion and to maintain voltage on lines at times of peak demand.

When you speak to consumers about the smart grid, one of the big challenges we have is that the existing grid systems is a remarkably reliable system. Most people don't worry about electric service, except under exceptional circumstances like storm damage or some other unusual event causes an interruption to their power.  Also, with most consumers isolated from the actual cost of providing power at any given instant, benefits of avoidance of peak power prices is absorbed at the utility level and are never sensed by the average consumer. Consequently, improvements in grid utilization to avoid congestion and the integration of distributed energy assets to support power flows are invisible to the consumer on a day to day basis. The real question for most smart grid activities is how benefits to the consumer can be made visible. 

That question enters the deliberations of public utility commissions in terms of explaining what the advantages of the smart grid will be to the average consumer. Smart grids require enlightened consumers to be fully effective and that is one of our great challenges.   

JB:   Let me ask a negative question.  Are we doing something wrong in rolling out the smart grid?

DM:  If we are making a mistake, and we are probably in this early stage of this process, is that we're not paying enough attention to how consumers will react and respond to the changes that the smart grid will entail.  If you look at some of the unsuccessful attempts to implement aspects of smart grid, even things simple as automated meter reading, the real issue as they roll out is how do we engage the customer.

 For smart grid to be totally effective and realize the potential that we describe in glowing terms, it requires all the aspects of smart grid technology a smart infrastructure including the ability to collect and respond to real-time information, a secure system for communicating and the means for interacting with both consumers and power providers to more effectively manage the grid system. However, it also requires an enlightened customer, and an informed regulator who understands what this technology means in their particular environment. 

Right at the moment, the customers and the regulators are still just beginning to understanding what a smart grid is likely to mean. Consequently, if there is a shortfall it is that I don't think we've done nearly as good of a job in engaging the customer in terms of what this is going to mean to them and how they respond to it.

JB:  It sounds like we've got some education to do here.

DM:  I think that is the key to broad acceptance going forward and quite frankly it has to move from speaking “technish” to people about technical changes that they can’t see and instead focus on providing clear statements of the benefits they will see individually and collectively in terms that are important to them.  So, I think the real challenge from the customer’s viewpoint, is articulating a value proposition defining what the smart grid represents to them.  I think this is an area that we've just begun to scratch the surface of terms of how to interact with the customers.

JB:  Is that a North American issue or is this different by global geography?

DM:   It's definitely a North America issue particularly because we've treated utilities and power generation as a commodity purchase, not a consumer product purchase.  You would go about engaging with your customers that completely differently if you considered electric service to be a customer service or a customer product as opposed to commodity.  I think we see elements of this in other places, but they tend to reflect the local cultures that exist.

China has a very different situation relative to what customer expectations are as many of them are really receiving power for the first time.  Although I think here and in Europe, we have comparable sorts of dynamics, I think the process of engagement is somewhat different depending on what the local cultural responses will be.  Consumer responses differ depending on socio-economic and other social anthropology characteristics of any given market place.  We’re certainly anticipating that here in the implementation of Grid Smart here in central Ohio.

JB:  It sounds to me like we've got a difference of cultures, and you bring up a good point that if we are going for consumers who are use to a reliable commodity purchase to smart grid, it is one set of education but if you are leap frogging and going to a set of customers who have never had electricity, it may be a little bit easier to go into something and educating those customers because they are used to less.  

DM:  I think that's a fundamental issue. Quite frankly, I anticipate we will see public attitudes continue to evolve as the value proposition of the smart grid emerges in the public mind. This will be greatly accelerated once we start seeing implementation of differentiated consumer services emerge such as plug-in hybrid charging where the smart grid is essential to consumer satisfaction.  Over time because expectations are going to change on the consumer's behalf as new functionality is delivered via the smart grid.

JB:  That's all the questions I had for you Don.  I want to thank you for your time and I do look forward to the panel in Cincinnati in early May where we can sit down with our colleagues and actually discuss this in further detail.

DM:  I think that will be real interesting and I'm looking forward to it Jon.

1 comment | Add a New Comment
1. Jeff Hazel, Director, Convergys Corporation | May 04, 2010 at 04:36 PM EDT

Not surprising that so prestigious an industry figure as Battelle's Don McConnell would be spot-on accurate re: the key hurdles to successful deployment of Smart Grid in the US. Success hangs on two factors: (1) consumer education on benefits of Smart Grid; and (2) rapid adoption by utilities of new smart infrastructures that enable the core functionalities of Smart Grid -- two-way, interactivity on consumer usage, and a superior, yet cost-effective service experience leveraging automation. We agree that most consumer-directed communications on Smart Grid have been overly technical. Plain English explanation of the benefits is the best approach for ensuring broad consumer acceptance. On the utility side, new infrastructure is half the battle. Making Smart Grid deliver what consumers expect and utilities need -- real-time usage for the former and greater efficiency, fuller plant capacity utilization and savings for the latter -- hinges on new Smart CIS solutions coming to market.

For additional perspective, check out this blog

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