Will Smart Grid Benefits Be Limited by Dumb Buildings?

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Energy Secretary Steven Chu announced $620 million in Recovery Act funding yesterday for 32 smart grid demonstration projects. The projects are divided into two categories: utility-run regional smart grid demonstrations and energy storage demonstrations run either by utilities or private companies.

The regional smart grid demonstrations will test a variety of technologies, such as wireless communication; sensing and control devices that help grid operators monitor and control the flow of electricity; smart meters; home energy monitoring systems; energy storage options; and ways to integrate renewable energy onto the electrical grid. The utility-scale energy storage projects will also look at advanced storage options ranging from flow batteries and flywheels to compressed air energy systems.

Still, experts caution that there is no guarantee yet that a smarter grid will deliver efficiencies, particularly if it is connected to dumb buildings.

With hundreds of applicants hoping to secure funding, the DOE spent months whittling down the final list of grantees to 32 recipients. Among them are some usual suspects, but also a good number of surprises. With the exception of Seeo, a Khosla Ventures-backed company that designs solid-state batteries for utility-scale energy storage, and The Detroit Edison Company, which plans to use A123 Systems batteries for utility-scale energy storage, the bulk of the companies on the energy storage list are virtually unknown.

SustainX, 44 Tech, Primus Power Corporation, Ktech, and Amber Kinetics are among these unfamiliar companies, a sign that the DOE is doing its homework. On the utility side, the picks are a bit more expected: Kansas City Power and Light, Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas and Electric—these are all brands that are regularly connected to all things smart grid in the news.

It’s an exciting time for smart grid technology, and with considerable funding flowing from both government and the venture capital community, advances are being made relatively quickly, not typical of energy industry. What still needs to be demonstrated, however, is that the smart grid will translate into energy savings for consumers.

So far, the smartening up of the grid has focused on saving utilities money and preventing blackouts and brown outs. Necessary things, to be sure, but not exactly the efficient utopia that’s often promised by smart grid proponents.

“The smart grid doesn’t necessarily have to be built with energy reduction as a key objective, even though it is almost always promoted as a way to save energy,” Hannah Friedman, of Portland Energy Conservation, Inc. (PECI) told SolveClimate.

Friedman recently wrote a white paper for PECI on the smart grid and energy efficiency in which she outlined the importance of bringing buildings up to speed as the grid is modernized.

“The smart grid could enable communications and networking to very poorly operating, inefficient buildings,” she said. “So we need a focus both on the build out of the smart grid and on making buildings work well at the same time.”

It’s an issue that the U.S. Green Building Council (USGBC) has spent a lot of time thinking about. The green building industry has struggled for years to reconcile the promise of new technology with the realities of energy use. The USGBC’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) rating system has come under fire for not keeping track of how buildings actually operate once they’re certified as “green”. As a result, the USGBC announced earlier this year the launch of its performance initiative, which will require that buildings submit performance data in order to get certified.

Scot Horst, senior vice president of LEED wants to take the performance initiative even further in coming years; right now it only requires that building owners share their operational data with the USGBC, not that the data show that the building is operating well, and Horst would like to see that change.

“I’d like to have a level that you have to maintain over time, I think we really need to go there,” he told SolveClimate. “But we’re a volunteer system so as an organization our job is to have very sensitive antennae out in the market and I don’t think the market is ready for that yet. Still, that’s where we’re heading if I get my way.”

Horst thinks the same sort of thinking should be applied to the build-out of the smart grid.

“The technologies are really interesting and fascinating because they’re changing the way we use energy, but the other side, which is really pertinent to us, is figuring out how we get people to engage when the technology doesn’t do something for them,” he said.

“Part of the idea is that when people see what’s going on they behave differently, so these new systems and monitors provide a new level of feedback for building owners and tenants. But we’ve realized time and again that feedback is not enough.”