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On the bleeding edge of technology

A few days ago, the general manager and board chair of an American Public Power Association distribution utility member came in to meet with me and other APPA staff for a get acquainted" session. During our meeting, the subject of smart grid technology came up. This utility has not yet made that particular technological leap — so far, they said that the benefit to customers from installing this technology has not penciled out, given the associated costs. And they were frank to say that they preferred to wait a bit, to see how "early adopters" of this technology fared, rather than make an expensive investment that might turn out to have, as we now say, "issues."

I was struck by how different the assessment of smart grid technology is between public power utilities and at least some investor-owned utilities. For public power utilities, the issue is not "can we get approval from our state PUC so we can put it in our rate base?" It is "will our customers really benefit from this new technology enough to justify the cost?"

I had to laugh (ruefully) when the subject of early technology adopters came up, because I am having my own early adoption experience. In 2013, I decided to buy a new car. Being the general counsel for an electric utility trade association, I figured I should "walk the walk" and check out plug-in electric vehicles. I decided against an all-electric car (still have that range anxiety!). So I settled on a Ford C-Max Energi, a plucky plug-in hybrid with enough of an all-electric range to get me through my commute to APPA's offices and back, without resorting to use of the gasoline engine. My husband worked with Ford to find a contractor to install our 220-volt charger (interestingly enough, our IOU electric utility was not particularly helpful to us in this endeavor), and so far we have had a good experience with our C-Max Energi — except when we haven't!

What do I mean? Well, at least two times, I have walked out of my house and tried to unlock the car, only to find it is dead. I mean really dead. So dead that the remote electronic key will not even click. We have had to tow the car to the dealership twice — they have replaced the traditional battery twice, but confess they really have no idea why this is happening or how to fix it.

I did what anyone would do in this day and age — I googled "C-Max Energi dead battery." I found a whole bunch of new online friends and fellow sufferers. In fact, there are C-Max and C-Max Energi on-line owners' forums, where this problem is well known and much discussed. Based on advice we got from the forum, my husband purchased a Stanley portable jump start system to carry in the car in case it dies again, while we all await the words on high from the engineers at Ford, who are supposedly burning the midnight oil to resolve the issue.

So, I could only nod in agreement when our members said they intended to wait to see how the smart grid technology actually works for consumers, and whether it is worth the investment. Being an early adopter may have some advantages, but not when you are standing in your driveway looking at your bleeding edge transportation — dead as a doornail."