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Getting Smarter About the Smart Grid

October 13, 2010 - 11:15am

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As a follow-on to the Federal Communications Commission’s National Broadband Plan, we released two reports addressing important Smart Grid issues: Data Access and Privacy Issues Related to Smart Grid Technologies and Communications Requirements of Smart Grid Technologies. An outgrowth of a process with lots of public participation, my hope is that these reports advance the dialogue on these foundational issues -- which are critical for the continued evolution to a smarter grid.

The first report focuses on the privacy implications of advanced metering systems. These systems offer many benefits because they can generate information allowing better management and modernization of our electrical grid and lower energy bills. They also generate the most important short-term privacy and data access issues because they can be used to describe a family’s lifestyle with precision.

The biggest surprise arising from the public comments we received was the range of issues for which there was broad agreement -- issues like the need to educate consumers about the benefits of smart grid technologies, that efforts to deploy smart grid technologies should be flexible and consider the circumstances of rural, low-income, minority, and elderly consumers, and, because one size does not fit all, allowing localized control over the technologies used and the pace of technology deployment.

Broad agreement, though, does not mean universal agreement. Some important issues remain to be debated -- issues about how consumers might authorize third-party access to their data, or the scope of liability for utilities required to disclose consumers data, and the types of data utilities should be required to collect and disclose to third parties. We explored these issues and our report frames them for further discussion.

The second report surveys communications technology options from the meter to deep in the electric grid. One important question is whether a utility should use its own network, or a commercial network, to meet its communications needs. We do not draw any hard conclusions, nor should we. Utilities must, in the end, decide what kinds of networks meet their needs. But we do believe that whether a commercial or utility owned network is most appropriate depends on a variety of factors, including the particular application and where a technology is being deployed. We also believe that there is much the Energy Department can do to help advance the discussion about how best to provide communications for smart grid technologies and our report sets forth several recommendations.

Because utilities expressed concern about getting sufficient priority of service on commercial networks, we’ve committed to reviewing existing federal priority-of-service programs to see if any changes should be made. Also, given the role of wireless technologies, we’ve committed to making sure the Energy Department fully advises federal spectrum management working groups on the communication needs generated by smart grid technologies and to work for increased utility representation on related federal advisory committees. In a similar vein, we recommend that utilities have increased representation on federal advisory committees addressing network reliability. And, finally, we’d like to make sure utilities are aware of existing programs that might make it easier for them to take advantage of commercial networks. To that end, we intend to develop an online clearinghouse as a forum for utilities and to provide a substantive resource on communications options and federal priority-of-service programs.

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