Evan Scandling: How Will the Smart Grid Influence IT, EVs and Commercial Buildings?

Source:  Evan Scandling, APCO Worldwide, Northwest Cleantech, April 2012.

I recently had the opportunity to join a roundtable discussion about the future of smart grid applications in three areas that don’t get as much attention as utility and home usages: commercial/industrial buildings, IT and electrical vehicles.

Hosted by the Washington Clean Tech Alliance, the roundtable brought together an array of more than fifteen experts ranging from end-users like Microsoft’s facilities manager Darrell Smith, to start-up entrepreneurs like Jim Holbery of GridMobility and Jimmy Jia of Distributed Energy Management, to academics like Chen-Ching Liu, an internationally recognized smart grid researcher based at Washington State University.

Bottom line – there were a lot of smart voices at the table and no shortage of perspective-changing insights. To avoid a 5,000 word thesis recapping the entire dialogue, I’ve included some of the more notable points made during the conversation:

  • Investments into smart grid and energy management software are only going to get hotter – tech giants like Google and Microsoft would be wise to amp up their investments now.  In this vein, look for the Northwest to compete with Silicon Valley to be the hub of smart grid talent.
  • Look to Japan as a case study for smart grid implementation and renewable energy implementation.  As one of the experts pointed out, “Japan is between a rock and hard place,” in a post-Fukushima recovery in which they’ve ruled out nuclear power as part of the energy mix.  The country will be forced to be as smart and efficient as possible in restructuring their energy infrastructure of the future…unlike places like the U.S. where we can continue to find reasons to move slowly.
  • Buildings contribute to approximately 40 percent of global emissions.  Commercial and industrial facilities managers must turn to smart grid solutions to shift from reactive to predictive building energy management.
  • The slow adoption of electric vehicles nationally can largely be explained on a regional or state-by-state basis.  Example: Washington state makes perfect sense for EVs right now because 50 percent of emissions are transportation related and we can electrify cars with clean hydro power.  Conversely, in a coal-heavy state like West Virginia, electrifying vehicles would mean replacing tailpipe emissions instead with increased emissions from coal plants.  As one expert in the discussion remarked, “If you don’t do it right, you just trade one problem for another.”
  • The promise of natural gas’ stability is tempting these days, but it would be foolish to base any long-term energy portfolios on today’s prices – the economics of that energy source (and any) could be quite different in a few years.

Sitting at the table for two hours with these specialists provided me with a notebook full of valuable perspectives, but if I had to pick out one overarching message of the day, it’d be that the “smart grid” –applying digital power to harness better energy intelligence (broadly) – is much bigger and game-changing than the vast majority of us think, or can even fathom.

One investor at the table even quipped that he hadn’t been as excited about a high-growth industry since the days when helped launched ESPN into the world of cable television.  Enough said, for me.