At the opening session of The Networked Grid 2012, Howard Scott, managing director of Cognyst Advisors, echoed the feeling of much of the smart grid industry when talking about what lies ahead this year for the North American market. “The question is, ‘What will happen in 2012?’” he said. “And the answer is -- not much.”

Not much, however, is not the same as nothing.

The stimulus funds have been handed out. The money is now being spent. As utilities large and small implement smart grid projects that run the gamut from ambitious to mundane, there are a host of nitty-gritty problems that are being faced.

Whether it’s merging various communications platforms or providing useful applications to customers, it turns out that integrating end-to-end smart grid that provides benefits to everyone is more difficult than many had imagined.

“We’re trying to close the gap between what excites us and what excites them,” Jim Greer, COO of Oncor, said during the morning keynote as he discussed customers. Despite his background in engineering, it's the customer piece that he chose to focus on at the conference.

Although technical questions of true interoperability and consumer engagement seem like disparate issues, that is not necessarily so. They are both issues of creating value across the entire business structure. Seamless systems are needed so that IT and OT can have access to data coming off of distribution equipment and smart meters -- but there also needs to be sophisticated analytics so that every facet of the business is getting the information it needs in the form it needs it from the reams of available data. That is the real smart grid, and 2012 is the year when we’re likely to see it in action. If nothing else, there is likely to be increased M&A activity as vendors scramble to offer fully integrated solutions. 

On the customer side, there is a similar goal. It’s not enough to have a meter unless people can interact with the data in a way that makes sense for them. Maybe it’s an alert when they cross into another billing tier, or a monthly email showing their usage compared to their neighbor.

The value proposition of smart grid could start to be proven out this year, with utilities releasing data on efficiencies that have been gained through upgrades. Other utilities have chosen to move slowly when it comes to meters and some other projects are waiting for that data before making any decisions of their own. 

For some utilities, they’re encountering problems trying to leverage an AMI mesh network for DA applications, while others are just struggling to integrate anywhere from two to six communications platforms, according to GTM Research analysts. The most forward thinking utilities are grappling with data analytics and what that means for their companies.

Although tangible benefits are coming at a trickle, rather than a tsunami, for most utilities, they are coming. Greer noted that just last week Oncor launched its new outage map for customers. On Tuesday, when tornadoes ripped through the Dallas-Fort Worth area, the new map, which is tied to the utility’s outage management system, showed a much more dynamic view of where power was lost from the tornadoes. “This is sacred ground,” said Greer, of sharing so much information with customers, “but it’s really made a difference.”

The early experiences that everything isn’t working together as well as it should have also produced some new ways of doing business, such as new consumer interactions. Oncor and San Diego Gas & Electric held a contest, known as Big Energy Savers, to promote energy efficiency by leveraging smart grid data. Some people saved up to 40 percent. The contest was a way to let people know that there were a variety of different ways to use this new technology.

For many utilities, it has also meant breaking down the silos that have traditionally defined their businesses so that IT and OT understand each other’s needs.

In Texas, retailers have been waiting for a critical mass of smart meters to be installed before they build offerings and applications to offer to their customers. That has taken longer than many anticipated, said Greer, but it’s starting to come now.

On the technical side, interoperability is also coming. During a tour at ABB’s Smart Grid Center of Excellence, Bill Whitehead, director of business development of distribution automation in North America, showed off a testing area where the company is testing not only its own equipment, but various communications technologies and anything else that a utility might put into a smart grid project.

Many utilities are waiting for some of the early movers to work out the kinks, on the customer and technical sides, before making decisions. But for those that are already in the thick of things, they see the early experience and are embracing their role and pushing the envelope in 2012. For some of the early movers, like Oncor, working through the problems firsthand could let them accelerate faster once the technology is in place and find value in applications that haven’t even been discovered yet.

“I think we have a really unique opportunity in the history of the industry,” said Greer. “I’m excited to be part of that. I know our customers will be excited about that -- they just don’t know it yet.”

And of course, if the slow and steady pace of doing the hard work in North American deployments seems boring, just look abroad. From high-voltage transmission and meters in China to distribution automation in Brazil and competitive markets in the United Kingdom, there is plenty of international action that will keep things interesting in 2012 and beyond.