Green:Net 2010: Sage Advice for Smart Grid Success

Unable to join my collegues for Green:Net 2010 in San Francisco yesterday, I spent a good chunk of the day glued to the live stream. And while I regret not having been able to scope out the startups or pick the brains of industry insiders, the one thing that I didn’t find lacking was the wealth of good advice dispensed by several panelists and speakers during the event. Here are three choice themes that can help both startups and established players hone their smart grid strategy.

“Think Like the Utilities
During yesterday’s Smart Grid panel at Green:Net, Laura Ipsen, senior VP and general manager of Cisco’s smart grid division, uttered that phrase to describe one of the challenges technology companies face in applying their expertise to the smart grid (33:40 in the video below). As it turns out, she also unwittingly offered one of the best pieces of advice I heard in terms of approaching space from an IT background.

It’s not a new idea. After all, there’s always some degree of “thinking like” a given market’s incumbents when expanding into their turf.  Yet for Cisco, this philosophy guided a pretty big staffing development: hiring Paul De Martini, former VP of advanced technology at Southern California Edison to serve as CTO for the smart grid team.

As firms beef up their smart grid product and services divisions with developers and engineers, expect them to also recruit electrical industry vets to help them decode the business priorities and regulatory quirks that govern utility practices. Filling the ranks with such a hiring strategy could also potentially modulate the “impedance mismatch” between utilities and tech companies. It’s a term that Google’s Advanced Projects Program Manager (PowerMeter) Edward Lu uses to describe how the relatively slow momentum of regulatory bodies and utilities fails to align with the speedy inertia that tech companies like Google are accustomed to.

Focus on the Grid (Then Consumers)
It’s a theme that has sprung up before, but Molly Webb, The Climate Group’s head of strategic engagement, drove the concept home with some eye-opening data (6:31 in the video below). For example, Current Group‘s dynamic distribution system optimization technology helped Xcel Energy’s smart grid program in Boulder, Colo. “achieve reductions of 3-5 percent of power generation over the baseline” and reduce voltage problems by 90 percent.

So while the idea of combating climate change with an army of informed and empowered consumers may be a compelling one, the data tells us that biggest opportunities in reducing the grid’s carbon emissions and achieving huge cost savings lie in optimizing the grid to minimize power loss over their transmission and distribution networks and incorporating renewable energy sources. This is good news for smart grid startups that identify more closely with IBM’s nuts-and-bolts approach to technology than with Apple’s efforts to cultivate consumer appeal.

“Privacy is Paramount”
Troy Batterberry, product unit manager at Microsoft Hohm, spoke those words toward the tail end of the (21:10 in the video below) How the Internet Giants are Getting Into Energy Management panel.  Batterberry went on to describe how Hohm’s fundamental guiding principle is that “we are simply the stewards of that data [within Hohm] on behalf of the consumer, and that is their information.”

It’s encouraging to see Microsoft take such a strong stance, and it’s one that other tech companies building smart grid and energy management platforms should replicate. Data privacy has emerged as a hot button topic in recent years — just look at the hubbub surrounding Facebook’s new privacy settings. For consumer-facing firms eyeing the smart grid or energy management business, it’s critically important to address the issue at this early stage and instill confidence in consumers from the get-go.

Those were just three insights that stood out during Green:Net, but there were several more. Since it’s impossible to distill an all-day, information-packed event into a few hundred words, I invite you to visit our archived streams and discover your own bit of smart grid wisdom at your leisure.

Question of the week

What was your favorite take-away from this year’s Green:Net?
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