How "Smart Grid" Can Be A Dirty Word, Plus 5 Alternatives


dirtywordEven though the “smart grid” industry is a hot topic these days — with $4 billion in federal stimulus funds set to be doled out in weeks and a potential $210 billion in revenues between 2010 to 2015 — the term can still be a dirty word for some utilities. That’s because some in the utility industry see the moniker as somehow suggesting that the current power grid is dumb, which some find insulting. If your company is looking to pitch utilities on smart grid products, here’s what they’re thinking:

I first heard that sentiment at the Edison Electric Conference in San Francisco, Calif. back in June. Founded in 1933, the Edison Electric Institute is made up of shareholder-owned electric companies that represent about 70 percent of the power industry. To kick off the conference on the first day David Ratcliffe, EEI’s chairman and the CEO of Southern Company, kept focusing on how “transformation is not new” for the utility industry and how the power grid is already smart and how the industry should be proud of the work its done up to this point.

Then last week during a wide-ranging interview with Guido Bartels, General Manager of IBM’s Global Energy & Utilities industry and one of Earth2Tech’s Top 15 Smart Grid Influencers, revisited that sentiment. When I asked him for some tips on how startups and smaller companies could work with utilities, he said tech companies need to recognize and appreciate the unique nature of the utility industry. When a tech company isn’t used to selling into the utility sector and uses the term “smart grid” a dozen times during an initial conversation, it can be off-putting for a utility, explained Bartels. It gives the impression that the current grid is dumb and that could be an insult to a reputable industry, he said.

Even if you think utilities shouldn’t be so sensitive (like I do), if you’re a newcomer trying to sell into that business you should probably take heed of the advice. IBM has been selling its software and consulting services to the utility sector since 2004 and has a large role in many of the large utility smart grid (mind my French) projects. I also do understand the backlash against a sector that many have been working in for years, but has in recent months become very hyped.

So if you want to avoid the overuse of the smart grid term in your utility pitch meetings, here’s five handy alternatives we’ve come up with:

  • digital power grid
  • 2-way electrical grid
  • next-gen energy networking
  • Bob Metcalfe’s coined term: EnerNet
  • Or the long-winded approach: the-not-dumb-but-could-be-much-better grid

Add in your own into the comments!

Image courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons.



I used to work on automation software in utility industry. For the past 10 years or so I have been working in mostly data networking field. So I have some perspective of both the worlds.

A lot of folks don’t realize how much automation, communication and electronics is already deployed in various aspects of electrical generation, transmission and distribution. You have to realize that power grid is probably one of the most complicated, interconnected system on the face of this planet. So caution on the industry’s part is a good thing in my opinion.

The home customer metering data is just a tiny portion of overall operations that go on behind the scene. But for the most people the meter is their only interface to the utility and that’s why this hype about making the grid ‘smarter’. The smart grid proponents should probably use terms like:

  • Meter Data Management
  • Home Demand Management etc.

You may get more sympathatic audience with utility.

It’s another matter those terms don’t sound very cool to your other audience.

Gary Mintchell

In my interviews with executives at ABB, they referred to it as the “smarter” grid. There exists some intelligence, of course, or they wouldn’t be able to do what they do now. However, there remains a long way to go to incorporate automation and communication technologies in order to do some really cool stuff.

Peter Troast

The end of meter reader dog treats

Sorry…punchy today.

But you know my view: until a utility provides me a real time view of my data, and gives me a better price when I shift my use to off peak, the word “smart” doesn’t apply.

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