Most consumers probably think that electricity comes from a light switch or, as National Grid’s Ed White says, “Nobody wakes up and says thank goodness my utility invested in the necessary infrastructure to power my alarm clock.”
White is helping lead the utility’s mission to innovate customer awareness as its vice president of New Energy Solutions and, by doing so, provide a unique and robust feedback mechanism into its technical, investment and regulatory activities.
The latest drivers of its effort are four projects, announced last month and intended to test not only what’s technically possible, but the requirements for user adoption and support. The REV Demonstration Projects (for “Reforming Energy Vision”) are under review by New York’s Public Service Commission.
They’re really innovation incubators, only they come with customers, a communications strategy, and real performance metrics.
“We want to find the right answers for the communities and customers we serve.”
“This means learning what they think, and not just telling them what we think those answers should be,” explained White.
One project will test distributed energy management at a medical campus, with a companion project that explores solar use in neighboring low-to-moderate income households. A third project will test the benefits of a community micro grid during crises, such as natural disasters, and a fourth will let consumers explore tools to monitor and control energy usage.
“For the most part, energy has been deregulated across the Northeast since the mid-1990s,” White said. “I think we’ve done a great job of giving customers information on how to conserve their energy use, but we’re still trying to educate them on the ways their choices intersect with how the market works.”
“The conversations we’re starting now aren’t about technology, per se, but rather connecting consumer choice and value with optimizing development.”
The dollars involved in that optimization are potentially huge.
National Grid delivers electricity and gas to 7 million customers in NY, MA and RI, and it spends billions in generation, transmission and distribution to serve not just disparate geographies and customer types, but contend with peak usage requirements, while upholding external and internal requirements for responsible and sustainable business performance.
“I know we can get customers more excited about saving money by using their thermostats, but we really want to collaborate on designing the energy landscape in New York and beyond,” said White.
It’s a far cry from conservation, which has served as a stand-in for such a deeper conversation about energy innovation.
National Grid hopes to use customer interest and support evidenced in its REV projects to inform its execution of the new distributed system while integrating resources into its existing infrastructure, develop constructive proposals for regulatory and rate design changes, and help guide its selection of strategic business partners.
Already, National Grid is working with many different companies and universities, like MIT and Earth Networks (makers of the Weather Bug smartphone app) to better allocate its repair services in anticipation of severe weather. It plans to partner with many other big and small companies like GE, Sealed, OPower, Honeywell and others on its REV projects.
“It’s no longer enough to talk about using less energy.”
“We’re expanding the conversation so our customers can make better choices, and we can make better management decisions,” White said.
“My younger kids may well take their driving tests in a world wherein EVs are the norm. I want us to innovate now so that we’re ready to flick the switch on that future, or whatever we collectively envision it will be.”