What will happen if consumers in a particular geographic area like Berkeley, California and Marin County flock to electric cars -- and area utilities haven't really prepared for the exigencies of mass smart charging?
"Fireworks," said Andres Carvallo, chief strategy officer at Grid Net. Transformers could blow and start fires all over town. The ability to maintain power at hospitals and other mission-critical facilities could be imperiled.
That's good news, in a roundabout way. In the past few months, consumers have let utilities know what they think of their plans to embed two-way communications into the grid to control air conditioners and other equipment in homes and offices to curb power. (Carvallo will discuss EVs and more at The Networked Grid on May 18 and 19.)
In short, they hate it. A few surly consumers in California and Texas have sued, respectively, electricity providers Pacific Gas & Electric and Oncor. In Australia, some customers have locked their meters. A plan to bring time-of-use pricing to the state of Victoria was shelved in light of a pending election.
Even avid greenies seem blasé. In Canada, Toronto Hydro has scrutinized the behavior of around 115,000 customers on time-of-use plans. Has cut rate power at night goosed them to shift their behavior? "No. Not really," said Toronto's Karen France during a meeting at eMeter's customer event.
Matt Golden, co-founder of retrofitter/software vendor Recurve, told me recently that the company has installed some energy management dashboards in the homes of clients. After two weeks, the frequency of interaction with the dashboards drops considerably. There have been success stories -- customers surveyed in a test conducted by Silver Spring Networks and Oklahoma Gas and Electric were overwhelmingly surprised to learn about their rate of energy consumption -- but people seem to be dozing off on what is a very important technology.
So what's the problem? Utilities and building management outfits are asking people to change their behavior to save pennies. PG&E's residential rates range from 11 to 49 cents a kilowatt hour. Will you alter your laundry schedule to save 37 cents? Toronto's spread is 9.9 cents at peak and 4.4 at night.
Executives from smart grid companies often like to compare energy dashboards to the phone. But the real analogy is to another ubiquitous consumer item with an interface of brightly colored squares. I speak of Rubik's Cube. You probably own one, but the odds are you are not one of those dedicated individuals who can solve it in less than three seconds blindfolded or shift the squares around with your feet. Instead, it's probably in a desk drawer in your parents' house, along with chewed up pencil stubs and a Pee-Chee folder that says, "Shannon Heeney is a fox!"
Consumers also remain leery of smart grid efforts because they have a sneaking suspicion that the main beneficiaries will be utilities. And in many ways, they are right. With better demand response, utilities can forgo building new power plants. CenterPoint in Texas can now shut off someone's power remotely within two hours for failure to pay a bill. In the past, they had to send out guys with trucks. CenterPoint has managed to eliminate 100,000 truck rolls to date through its meters.
You'll probably hear push-back from solar customers, too. Why should I have to pay additional taxes and rate increases for new smart grid infrastructure, they might ask, when I did my part by installing a $25,000 solar system!?! Again, building management is great, but it will have to be automated -- and the appetite for rate increases will be scrutinized with a fine-toothed comb.
This brings me back to cars. Consumers love electric cars. Along with green architecture, it's one of the two segments of the market that inspire lust, envy -- and likely -- compulsive spending. It's a whole new driving experience that's far more engaging than a gas car.
Nissan has already booked over 10,000 reservations for the Leaf and it will only make 50,000 in the first year of production. The car won't even enter production until September. Fisker has booked over 1,400 reservations for its $90,000 plug-in Karma. Even Aptera, which makes a three-wheeled car struggling to get to production, has a waiting list.
Recently, I drove an all-electric Ford Focus. Strangers pointed and took pictures. I felt like the Man from the Future heralding the new era of rental cars. If only I had worn the silver skin suit. Forget high battery prices and range anxiety for a moment: electrics are the Volkswagen Bug of our time.
When utilities explain that electric cars can't take off without smart charging, the objections will melt away. Utilities will even be able to tout that they are building U.S. jobs. Petroleum comes from Saudi Arabia, Mexico and Canada. Electricity comes from Sandusky, Ohio.
Granted, utilities will have to go through the public meeting process, and objections will arise. There will also be a lot of companies arguing that the world needs software and tools that will identify consumers remotely and charge electricity to their home accounts before the cars become popular. (Easier solution: put charge spots in convenience stores and parking lots and let store owners charge whatever they want, just like they do with Slim Jims.) Safety? Check -- and don't we all drive around with a tank full of flammable liquids now? And, yes, as Dian Grueneich of the California Public Utilities Commission notes, it will be expensive to upgrade the grid.
But it won't dampen down the enthusiasm, and it will drag a technology that's not winning any popularity contests yet along with it.