Energy Efficiency

Rethinking electricity in the next 50 years

During the finale earlier this month of Halt and Catch Fire — a television series about a Texas computer firm's effort to build an IBM clone in the early 1980s — two of the main characters watch Apple's iconic 1984 Super Bowl ad. The picture switches back and forth, from men in dystopian black to a lone woman in bright color, who uses a sledgehammer to smash through a scary image of Big Brother. An announcement for the new Mac flashes on the screen, and it becomes suddenly apparent that their world is about to change dramatically.

This technological watershed moment provides some interesting parallels to what is happening in the utility industry in 2014. One of the ad's main themes is that the new Macs would allow individuals to gain far greater power over their own lives. This is exactly what is happening with smart grids, which are reshaping the fundamental relationship between consumers and utilities.

Computer-based control and automation technologies that manage data flow to and from the power grid are allowing us to set the temperature and light our homes and offices with easy-to-use smartphone applications. We take these new capabilities for granted. Yet, not so long ago, they were just another prediction from an overly-excited futurist.

Today, consumers' growing use of smartphones and appliances to control their energy use, along with the electrification of transportation, promises that soon, we'll have a more precise view of the demand dynamic. As a recent National Journal article discussed, smart grids will contain capacities driven by big data that will provide comprehensive quantitative analysis about electricity use. As millions of individual decisions are automatically collated and analyzed, trends and patterns will be identified. We will develop a far better appreciation for how quickly we are making the transition to a more energy efficient, cost conscious, and environmentally sensitive society.

In New York for example, the state's recently launched Reforming the Energy Vision" initiative is intended to enable consumers to take a more active role in managing their electricity consumption. REV hopes to promote a more efficient use of energy, deeper penetration of renewable energy resources such as wind and solar, and wider deployment of "distributed" energy resources.

Big data and social networking technologies can also be used to increase transparency and drive innovation in system design and operation. Smart technologies will be particularly important tools in our efforts to achieve greater sustainability. For example, in December 2012, BuildSmart NY, established a goal for New York state-owned and -managed buildings to reduce energy use by at least 20% by 2020. In FY2012, New York State is already a quarter of the way toward that goal, resulting in a savings of 50 to 60 million dollars and an avoidance of 130 to 180 thousand tons of greenhouse gases.

BuildSmart NY relies on four main strategies:

  • Smart Analytics: Through the installation of smart meters and the adoption of energy information systems and analytics tools, agencies will analyze their energy performance and make intelligent decisions around energy.
  • Smart Government: By incorporating energy efficiency into the State Capital Budget Program, agencies will provide more resources to support energy projects and fill gaps in the energy service landscape.
  • Smart Infrastructure: In retrofitting and replacing existing building systems with more energy efficiency models, agencies will not only boost energy efficiency, but also reduce operating costs. Additionally, in new construction, energy efficiency will be directly built and incorporated into the design of new buildings.
  • Smart Operations: Agency routines will now include energy efficiency, making operations and maintenance of facilities a fundamental part of performance management and goals.

Three decades after the Apple ad aired, we have arrived at an extraordinary new era that allows the individual to participate actively in an ongoing global conversation about energy use.

Smart grids have become agents of far-reaching change, allowing us to make informed choices about the utilization of precious resources. They will help guide our investments in infrastructure and technology, create more intelligent regulatory frameworks, and help us rethink how electricity will be generated and delivered over the next 50 years.

We are at the edges of a revolution far more profound than the one so dramatically declared during a break in the third quarter of the Super Bowl XVIII telecast.

Gil C. Quiniones (@GQEnergy) is the President and Chief Executive Officer of the New York Power Authority, a member of the American Public Power Association. Quiniones has served as Senior Vice President of Energy and Telecommunications for the New York City Economic Development Corporation during the Bloomberg Administration, and worked for Con Edison for 16 years."