Why the Smart Grid Won't Have the Innovations of the Internet Any Time Soon


Many people (myself included) have painted a picture of how the consumer piece of the smart grid could develop into a real-time, two-way communication network that looks a lot like the Internet. In that world, consumers would be able to see variable pricing change in real time, while smart meters and energy management devices read and visualize energy consumption data every second, leading to changes in consumer behavior. The ultimate vision of that landscape is that real-time energy data unleashes innovations and applications that we haven’t yet thought of, which will deliver substantial behavior changes.

Well, that’s the outcome for which entrepreneurs and innovators are hoping. The reality is that the consumer piece of the smart grid will look very different for many years to come. While it’s significant that utilities are starting to build out smart grid infrastructure, utilities are largely opting for networks that provide connections that are far from real time, and this could stifle the desired innovation.

What Utilities Are Planning

Utilities today are largely designing smart grid networks to collect data from smart meters in a time frame that ranges from between every 15 minutes to an hour, then bringing that data back to a collection point on the network. From there, many utilities are only bringing data back to the utility back office where the numbers are processed and packaged for consumers once a day. As Google’s (s GOOG) Tom Sly explained to me recently, there are two different temporal issues: the resolution of the energy data (at what intervals the energy consumption is tracked) vs. the age of the data (how long it takes before it makes it back to the customer). PG&E (s pcg), Duke (s duk), San Diego Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison are all planning slight variations of this setup.

When an outside company partners with a utility to provide smart grid and energy management tools, it’s beholden to this setup. When Google — which largely believes that the more information the better — works with a utility, smart meter data that is pushed to Google’s PowerMeter energy tool has to make its way back to the utility before it can be sent to Google. That means that even for Google’s energy tool, there can be both a significant delay before information reaches consumers, and significant gaps in energy data details. These delays and gaps can undercut the premise of how smart meter technologies will empower consumers to make decisions about their energy use based on real-time costs.

When it comes to providing real-time pricing to the consumer — with the idea that raising prices when demand goes up will discourage energy use during those times, lowering peak demand — the utility execs we spoke with didn’t even want to speculate on how frequently consumers will eventually get pricing updates. It’s just too early in the smart grid network design, most said. Google’s first version of PowerMeter also isn’t working with pricing information.

Why are utilities not rolling out networks that can provide more real-time services? Primarily because of the cost. It costs more to build out networks that are more complex and provide more services. Utilities have to get regulatory approval for these smart grid rollouts and want to keep costs low, particularly because consumers will end up footing most of the bill for the upgrades through rate hikes. Utilities want to move slowly because they aren’t sure how consumers will react. But also many in the utility industry don’t realize the disruptive nature and capabilities of communication networks. While networks have been changing the way we consume entertainment, work, talk to friends, and spend money, it’s perhaps not so clear to the utility industry how powerful the network effect will be when it comes to changing human behavior when it comes to energy.

Why Infrequent Data Falls Short

Google says it will work with utilities that have a minimum resolution of smart meter data of once per hour, while the age of the smart meter data when it reaches consumers can be 24 hours old. Google says a resolution longer than once per hour becomes less useful for changing consumer behavior. But that cut-off actually seems pretty lenient. The more frequent and granular the information is, the more it could affect consumer behavior.

Carrie Armel, research associate at Stanford’s Precourt Energy Efficiency Center, who is beginning research on energy data and consumer behavior change, and is working with Google, says, “If you are only given one number per hour regarding how much energy your home used, it will be very difficult to figure out how much energy was used by each of the behaviors you performed in the past hour.” Armel points out that the more frequently the data is given to the consumer, the more engaged the consumer will likely be, and that our brains are hardwired to respond to quick feedback. Human brains create a stronger emotional connection between a behavior (like turning on an appliance) and an outcome (a visual display of a spike in energy use and money spent) when the delay between the behavior and the outcome is very short (less than 2 seconds). Longer delays could be less motivating.

Beyond the risk of not changing consumer behavior significantly enough, I would guess that the closer the networks get to delivering real-time information, the more an ecosystem of innovation and new applications can be built up around this information. For example, look at the history of the telecom industry and location-based services. Many years ago, a debate arose around how often phone companies would enable their networks to ping the GPS in the cell phone — what would be most productive, people asked, once every couple of minutes, or closer to real time? For cell phone companies and utilities alike, it’s more expensive to provide data more frequently. But for cell phones and GPS, the debate ended when the killer location-based app — turn-by-turn driving directions — finally emerged. Turn-by-turn driving directions only work when the data is available in real time — no one will use a service that tells you to turn a couple minutes after you pass the right street.

Something similar could happen with energy data and changing consumer behavior. I’m not really sure what the application that will most effectively change behavior is, and that’s the point. A killer app will likely emerge after the networks are already built and we can study their effects. If those networks aren’t built to provide granular information then there’s less of a chance it will foster the innovation we need to reduce energy use.

The Future

Of course, new energy management tools (like a Wattvision) are coming out that can bypass the utility data system and get closer to real-time information in the home. Google is planning on working with these types of partners. But if the future of real-time energy data relies solely on consumers going to a retailer and buying and installing one of these home energy products, the market will not only be disjointed but will take a very long time to unfold.

Ultimately we applaud utilities for starting to move on building out smart meters and the smart grid. And most utilities say they plan to make networks more robust and collect and process data more frequently down the road. The most common explanation I heard in talking with experts about this was that we’re still in the early days of the smart grid, and I should just hold tight, because the networks will get more sophisticated eventually. But it’s important that in the first buildouts of these systems, utilities are as forward-thinking as possible.


Bala Nataraj

Excellent article Katie – very relevant to what Im seeing daily in my involvement with Smart initiatives in 2010.

James Williams

Does anyone have proof that more information actually saves energy in residential applications? I understand the theoretical benefit, but in practice I have seen very little real result on how meter data in residential leads to persistent reduction.

I am not ignorant on how to save energy. Last year my company reduced energy use in more than 28K small businesses and 6,800 homes. In a previous business my team reduced energy usage 20% in 1,000 large buildings using real time data.

The people who are pushing more real time data, are in the business of data not efficiency. If you want the data go buy TED. It’s cheap.

I sell solutions that reduce energy usage. If I thought more real time data or an edict from the President would drive me more business, wouldn’t I be for it? But proposals like the Markey bill will cause a lot of people to spend a lot of money on real time data access with limited results. It disintermediates what the thoughtful utilities are trying to do, which may cause them to revert to doing nothing in energy efficiency, is that good?

Things like 15min interval data (in residential) does not solve the problem. If you want to analyze a building to get to the real issues you need to sample down at 15khz (yes that is 15,000 times a second). Practically, we do not know the right and best way to gather data that effects change at scale in residential, so we should not set a national policy until innovators deliver.

TOU is just another game for high cost energy in markets with low reserve margin. The bulk of CO2 comes from base load. I don’t need a meter to tell me to install a 19seer air conditioner, CFLs, etc. And once these systems are in, I don’t need to stare at Google Power meter to learn more. Normal people want to live their life, not stare at goats.

Before we go spend several billions more, maybe we should actually do some real scientific study on what drives people to adopt persistent energy efficiency measures. For example, pre-pay meters provide a simple status signal (Yellow/Red light) and drive 15% reduction in energy usage – no interval data required.

Nick Taylor

I think consumers (or… (ahem) “people”, as they’re sometimes known) are going to route around this problem.

The future of smart-grids isn’t going to be centralised, it’s going to be driven by a device that sits where wall-plugs (or light-fittings etc) normally sit – but is remotely controllable, and which feeds information back to the user’s wifi router.

The data will be collected by the second rather than by the minute/hour… and the primary interest will be the lazy/cool factor… for people to turn off the lights without having to get their fat arses up off the sofa, or check that they haven’t left the gas on, after they’ve left the house. To turn on the lights (and the cameras) in the garage if they hear a noise out there at night.

The secondary interest is that they’ll be able to see (graphically – with a proper, over-friendly Web 2.0 style graphical interface) how much energy is being used at any given point… with the ability to click off anything not needed…. without having to get out of bed. It will all be doable from their cellphone or laptop, or any other device capable of receiving/displaying etc.

Combine this with micro-generation (eg: Nanosolar, Konarka et al)… I think we’ll get to a point where people are going to say “ok, I can jump from here”… and rather than using The National Grid as a backup, using a little petrol/biomass generator instead.

So… similar to the way that the web is creating the means for people to simply route around the music/film industry… I think it’s going to happen with energy as well.

Robert Cragie

It’s a interesting article and the concerns are understandable. There are so many facets to the Smart Grid, it’s easy to assume the utilities aren’t interested in building a modern infrastructure capable of supporting real-time information as they have so many other considerations to think about. The breadth of the task is indeed enormous. However, the two keys to making this work are a) standardization and b) robust cybersecurity. The first is important to ensure that the infrastructure put in place supports inter-communication between all the myriad parts of the Smart Grid and the second is important to make sure the domains of information available are carefully federated and managed. In this way, complex multi-tiered information systems with narrow and wide feedback loops can be built in the Smart Grid which would enable the innovative applications Ms Fehrenbacher talks about. The technologies being considered for the home environment are being developed now with both the above points in mind and supported by a number of forward-looking utilities. The dynamic is already changing with the mindset of control systems engineers being challenged by that of networking and IT infrastructure engineers.


23 years ago I stayed at my father-in-law to be’s house in Hastings NZ. His electric meter was smart enough to tell the central power office when he was using power and how much. Enough so, that I had to modify my behavior on when I did laundry.

If NZ could do this for every electric customer 23 years ago, why is my local utility in E. Texas currently installing meters that require a meter reader to drive/walk our neighborhood to get a reading?

Oh – I know! Perhaps it’s the descendents of Sir Edmond Hillary, Earnest Rutherford or Richard Pierce that are designing their grid?


I understand this article’s point of view, and it may be right for a year or so.. But here are the steps that I think will prove it wrong in the near future.

1: Google’s new Google Wave product will soon make it possible to cheaply relay real-time data from any device.

2:We will ditch the expensive energy monitoring tools coming out now (each with it’s own digital screen). And instead install very cheap EMF readers that can report via Google Wave to your online analytics dashboard. This sensor should be able to fit behind your socket’s faceplate.

If Google is keeping their mouth shut about how easy they will make it to monitor your electricity use in the future, I think they’re just being careful to monitor their public image.

Steve Gillock

I too have installed a TED, and the real-time feedback is very useful Unfortunately, do to long term analysis with a computer, you need to leave the computer on all the time, so i only use it sporadically. It would be much better with a Google-like web service, no doubt.

@Gregory, I’m interested to learn about the challenge you’re facing with your business case. Is your business model utility focused, end customer focused, or is there some other way you’re looking at the problem?

Gregory Hancock

This obstacle – data resolution and latency – is a huge problem. In my work leading to the openamr.org and Meterface direct-AMR-read solutions (which could easily be embedded in a Linksys router, BTW), the temporal granularity is 5 minutes with zero latency, and the load precision is +/- 60 watts. That’s better than Google PowerMeter can do right now, and it bypasses the energy company. The problem is that I haven’t been able to make the business case work for bringing my AMR gateway to market. Would love your feedback on this.

Steve Hindman

Hopefully the Internet service providers will see an opportunity here to add energy monitoring and management capabilities into their broadband gateways. These devices, while not ubiquitous, are fairl common and could allow realtime home energy management to be distributed to the masses.

Earl Killian

Fortunately, entrepreneurs are not dependent upon the utilities for real-time, useful data. One can buy products today that provide the data, independent of the utilities. There is no reason these products couldn’t have an Internet connection (e.g. Ethernet or WiFi) to get real-time pricing data and control similarly connected devices in the home or business.

I for one would prefer the privacy afforded by keeping all of my data within my home, without sending it to my utility or to Google.

Granularity of the data is not an issue with existing products; for example one can program one product at http://www.theenergydetective.com/ to sample as often as once a second. It has up to 10 years of storage. (I’m not associated with the company.)

Libran Lover

Excellent post.

Going by your analogy, the utilities are not in the Internet stage yet (open network). They are still in the early computer network stage. Even in the world of computers and telecom, there was a gap of few years from when computers started to be networked in a big way and we started seeing Internet-based innovations.

Right now, utilities are just starting to implement early versions of a networked infrastructure and struggling to get that network working right. So, the utilities are indeed right when they say that it’s still early days for them. They are not blind to the potential of a robustly networked infrastructure. My prediction is that we will start seeing Internet-like innovations in the utility space much faster than the time gap there was between computers first getting networked and the age of the Internet.


Will Mallett

Wonderful post, Ms. Fehrenbacher, and I couldn’t agree more about the current shortcomings of smartgrid technology. Your point about energy management tools that bypass utilities altogether is well taken – without a concrete incentive (like a sudden spike in energy prices) it’s unlikely that consumers will invest in retail energy management tools on a large scale of their own accord. Still, for energy-conscious and intellectually-curious homeowners, these tools can be very effective and very cool. Peter Troast, the founder of the home energy efficiency resource Energy Circle (and, for disclosure, a colleague of mine) recently hotwired a TED The Energy Detective for live-streaming his home’s energy use here – http://www.energycircle.com/ted_display.php – a project that garnered some press attention and caused a dramatic decrease in his family’s energy use. Only the greenest of the green or the dorkiest of the dorky are likely to do the same, of course, but it does give us an idea of what real-time energy monitoring looks like, and what good it can do.


When sitting in on the smart grid meetings I couldn’t help but think that the smart grid isn’t going to be so smart after all for reasons you presented so well. Thanks.

It reminds me of the telecom industry. A few large companies controlling every thing while smaller startups try to innovate but are held back, ground against each other by the gatekeepers. A thousand flowers can’t bloom in a terrarium.

Scott Van Dam

Carefully introducing competition needs to be introduced in the Utility space in order to stimulate innovation. Utilities have a monopoly and have no reason to innovate except by regulatory and political force. This method is certainly not a recipe for success.

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