VC Joins FCC, Will Focus on the Smart Grid

smartgridgeneralimageUpdated: Here’s an unusual combination: a venture capitalist that was formerly a VP at since-shuttered algae fuel startup GreenFuel has joined the Federal Communications Commission, where he will focus on the smart grid. According to peHUB, Nick Sinai, who was a principal at Tenaya Capital (Lehman Brothers Venture Partners) for a little over a year and at Polaris Ventures for three years before that (along with ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe), will become the Energy and Environmental Director for the FCC, where he will lead “a team that will examine how broadband/communications infrastructure and policies can support our national energy and environmental goals, with an emphasis on the Smart Grid,” peHUB quoted him as writing in an email to friends.

The move is unusual, largely because so far, the FCC hasn’t really played a big role when it comes to standards or the implementation of the smart grid. The National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST), the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the North American Electric Reliability Corporation (NERC), even the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) have done a lot more high-profile work. But the FCC will have an important part to play when it comes to dictating the rules for smart grid services using wireless spectrum and broadband technologies, and perhaps Sinai’s addition signals greater future involvement by the commission.

Update: In response to my question about the FCC’s role in the smart grid, Sinai tells us via email that:

“Right now we are gathering data and information from experts that will help us develop a plan regarding broadband’s role in energy, so we’ll be able to better answer that question in a few months.”

In June the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) asked NIST to put together a group to study interference in unlicensed wireless spectrum (that which isn’t owned by any one group and is available for access by anyone that abides by the unlicensed rules) for smart grid applications. It’s a confusing topic, but it’s something with which the FCC has a great deal of experience.

In addition the FCC will be able to play a role when it comes to groups that are asking for a dedicated chunk of wireless spectrum for utilities and smart grid services. The Utilities Telecom Council, a trade group made up of utilities and grid vendors, has for years been advocating that utilities “must have access to dedicated radio spectrum.” It’s stepped up its efforts in recent months, calling for at least 30 MHz of spectrum.

The FCC, under newly appointed Chairman Julius Genachowski (read Om Malik’s awesome interview with Genachowski here), has been asked to set up a National Broadband Task Force to examine the state of broadband in the U.S. Sinai will be coordinating a workshop the FCC is holding later this month, on Aug. 25, that’s dedicated to exploring how broadband can contribute to the rollout of the smart grid. We’ve reached out to Sinai and are hoping to find out more about his role and the FCC’s plans (if any) for overseeing the deployment of the smart grid. (See update above)