Saturday, June 18, 2011

Post # 73 - New White House Report Identifies "Key Actions" to Empower Consumers in a Smart Grid World

The National Science and Technology Council, a cabinet-level council within the White House tasked with coordinating science and technology policy across the federal government, last week released a new series of smart grid recommendations.

The report, A Policy Framework for the 21st Century Grid: Enabling Our Secure Energy Future, outlines what the NSTC calls “four essential pillars that will enable the United States to transition to a smarter grid”:

1. Enable Cost-Effective Smart Grid Investments: Smart grid technology can drive improvements in system efficiency, resiliency, and reliability, and help enable a clean energy economy through cost-effective grid investments Many of these technologies promise to pay for them- selves in operational improvements, and energy savings The Federal Government’s research, development and demonstration projects, technical assistance, information sharing on technologies and programs, and evaluations provide valuable guidance for utilities, consumers, and regulators about what approaches are the most cost-effective, thereby paving the way for the effective, ongoing upgrade of the grid

2. Unlock the Potential of Innovation in the Electricity Sector: A modernized electric grid promises to be a powerful platform for new products and services that improve grid operations and deliver comfort, convenience, and savings to energy customers

3. Empower Consumers and Enable Informed Decision Making: The success of smart grid technologies and applications depends on engaging and empowering both residential and small business consumers New tools and programs promise to provide consumers personalized information and equip them to make informed energy choices, while ensuring their energy consumption data is accorded privacy protections

4. Secure the Grid: Protecting the electric system from cyber attacks and ensuring it can recover when attacked is vital to national security and prosperity Developing and maintaining threat awareness and rigorous cybersecurity guidelines and standards are keys to a more secure grid.

With respect to no. 3, empowering consumers, the NSTC report identifies a number of “key actions.” The report says that state and federal policymakers and regulators should evaluate the best means of ensuring that consumers receive meaningful information and education about smart grid technologies and options. “Ideally, these efforts will create a track record of transparency and responsiveness, address consumer concerns including data privacy, and clearly explain the opportunities and safeguards that characterize smart grid projects to help consumers make informed decisions.” State policymakers also should continue to consider how to develop policies and strategies “to ensure that consumers receive timely access to, and have control over, machine-readable information about their energy consumption in a standard format.”

Where a utility deploys the relevant infrastructure, the report says that state and federal regulators should consider means of ensuring that “consumer facing devices and applications make it easier for users to manage their energy consumption.” The NSTC notes that types of information and options that smart grid technologies can offer may not be familiar to all consumers, meaning that a simple and usable design may well be crucial to helping consumers realize the promised benefits.

The NSTC states that state and federal regulators should consider, as a starting point, methods to ensure that consumers’ detailed energy usage data are protected and develop, as appropriate, approaches to address particular issues unique to energy usage. The report argues that “consumer trust is essential to the success of smart grid technologies, and protecting the privacy of smart grid related data is one crucial component of strengthening this trust.”

Finally, the NSTC recommends that state and federal policymakers and regulators should consider appropriately updating and enhancing consumer protections for smart grid technologies. “Concerns about data-sharing, new rate structures, and involuntary remote disconnection—namely the impact on privacy, fairness, due process, and costs—raise policy challenges that consumer protection laws and policies may need to address.”

The report itself, of course, does not establish any policy, even for the federal government – and many of its prescriptions in the consumer area are in the regulatory domain of the states and their public service commissions. But it does reflect the thinking within the current administration and follows up on prior Obama administration initiatives designed to promote smart grid development.

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