Smart Grid’s Biggest Challenge: Customer Communications

For implementation of a smarter electrical grid to be successful, four critical areas must be addressed, and, according to at least one major U.S. utility, the biggest challenge will involve communications (in the non-technical sense of the word).

The four areas are: updating and enhancing the transportation and distribution infrastructure, installing intelligent sensors for automation, implementing communications systems so data can be transferred and interpreted, and educating and communicating with customers.

Of the four areas listed above, all significant, long-term challenges in their own right, customer communications to secure customer approval, support and participation will be the most significant hurdle, says Dana Parshall, director of advanced grid and meter technology for Akron, Ohio-based FirstEnergy Service Company. Parshall was one of the speakers at an Advanced Energy Speaker Series presentation sponsored by NorTech Energy Enterprise on March 10. The presentations are available online.

Noting that the grid is “already pretty smart,” Parshall said real-time, two-way communication among the supply, transmission, substation, distribution and customer assets is the ultimate goal. This will require advanced grid functionality and customer empowerment. Customer usage information will help improve operational efficiencies, enable demand management and support energy conservation by customers.

While today’s customer interaction with an electric utility may be limited to the monthly bill, customers of the future may have daily, even hourly exchanges of information, electronically, Parshall noted. Instead of thousands of devices, millions and millions of sensors and other electronics will be deployed – all gathering data that must be stored, monitored and controlled. A high degree of cybersecurity will be critical for ensuring the integrity of the data and gaining customer acceptance.

FirstEnergy believes a national consumer education program may be needed to drive smart grid acceptance – similar to “buckle up” seatbelt campaigns.

For demonstration and pilot project purposes, FirstEnergy has been awarded federal Smart Grid Investment Grants to deploy 18 million smart meters across its infrastructure and approximately 1.2 million in-home displays.

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