Smart Meters could have saved US from Sandy

Following the disruption caused by hurricane Sandy, Smart Metering proponents have been quick to point out how a more widespread deployment could have prevented many of the problems seen in New York and New Jersey.  Utilities in Texas and California reported that within their regions where there was close to 100% smart meter deployment, they’d not experienced a single example of power outage or flooding.  And smart meter manufacturers added that the outage reporting capability of their meters would have saved vast amounts of time and money for the East Coast utilities.  “Instead of having hundreds of staff watching CNN and following twitter feeds to find out where power had gone down, utility executives could have just checked on their iPhones” said one industry spokesman.

These benefits were echoed by smart thermostat manufacturers, claiming that the wireless networks in their devices could have been reconfigured to provide a local wireless mesh, enabling peer-to-peer communications within affected communities, as well as being used for in-home geo-location, aiding local emergency services.  “Our thermostats don’t just look over your climate control”, one executive commented, “they can even look after Granny and your pets in situations like this”.

Of course, they didn’t really say any of that, but it’s not a million miles away from some of the hyperbole that the industry has been generating over the last few years.   Superstorm Sandy was a timely reminder of what the smart grid is actually about – upgrading infrastructure, through robustness, improving redundancy and control and making better use of data.  But many of the vendors within the sector have concentrated on dazzling naïve utilities with technology, in much the same way that colonial explorers mesmerised credulous natives with colourful beads.

Smart metering does have the capability to provide benefits.  But it’s not the same as Smart Grid.  Neither are shiny smart thermostats or expensive home energy control systems.  Yet too often, they’ve been the recipients of venture and stimulus funding.  They’re nice toys for those who can afford them, but that’s probably of little comfort to those on the East Coast who are still suffering the depredations of last week’s storm. 

It behoves governments and utilities around the world to learn from these events and make sure that common sense is given a greater emphasis than technology for technology’s sake.  The events of last week were a disaster for those involved, but they could provide a valuable lesson for the future of the Smart Grid. 

Already those questions are being asked.  ZPryme – one of the Smart Grid Analysis companies asked 186 Smart Grid executives at the end of last week whether they thought that Smart Grid technologies could have helped utilities restore power faster had they been fully deployed.  79% said yes, 21% no (and for a change it’s nice to see there are no “don’t knows” within the industry).  But those surveyed raised the question as to whether the Smart Grid could have made the current U.S. grid more resilient.  I’m sure we’ll soon see a number of smart grid suppliers pointing out that theeir technologies have been “storm tested” and come with a “We beat Sandy” sticker.  There’s already the first signs of that over at SmartGridNews, where they’re profiling “Why Sandy makes the smart grid more important than ever“.

The point we need to remember is that Hurricane Sandy has now given the industry a specific use case to help guide them towards a more pragmatic decision as to what the Smart Grid should be.  Let’s hope that it is not just used to promote more peripheral technology.  It has given us a far more important lesson.