A new path to the smart grid emerges in New York


The US utility industry has caught “smart grid fever.” On a seemingly daily basis there are new announcements of pilot projects, new demonstration projects, vendor partnerships, and the requisite conferences providing “all of the answers to the smart grid questions that you were afraid to ask.”

Here at smart-energy.com and indeed across all of Spintelligent we are fortunate to see many of this flood of new information on a regular basis. And while it is at times overwhelming, it is also both necessary and exciting.

One of the more exciting developments that we have come across this year is a new business model for making the smart grid a reality: the New York State Smart Grid Consortium. Publicly announced just a few weeks ago, the Consortium represents a new type of public/private partnership that could represent a model that other regions of the country and perhaps even the world should take a closer look.

We recently had an opportunity to sit down with Robert Catell, chairman of The Consortium.  As the former chairman and CEO of Keyspan Corporation and former chairman of National Grid, U.S., he is no stranger to leadership and innovation in the U.S. utility industry. He sits on numerous industry and philanthropic boards including the New York State Energy Research & Development Authority (NYSERDA), and is also the chairman of the Advanced Energy Research & Technology Center (AERTC), which is to be located at the Stony Brook Research & Development Park adjacent to the campus of Stony Brook University.
We see a lot of people in various stages of smart grid development, and there are a growing number of players and models. What are the origins of the Consortium?
The origins of the Consortium started with a group of us in New York State looking at the electric power industry and seeing utilities implementing many different approaches to the smart grid. This has all emerged so quickly that there is no right or wrong way to do this as yet, but we recognized that we might be able to seize this opportunity to really advance the modernization of the grid. Discussions for how we might be able to do this started at the Advanced Energy Conference that the AERTC hosted last year. Another impetus for us was applying for federal stimulus funding, but this soon evolved into implementing a smart grid in a coordinated fashion for the benefit of all consumers in New York… we think this is important.

What was the first thing you all did to ramp this up so quickly?
We realized that we had to have a diverse group of stakeholders sitting at the table. This included utilities, government agencies, academic institutions, industry leaders, and customers. This was not an easy step! But we all realized that we had a unique opportunity here. One of the key outcomes from those early discussions and meetings was the emergence of a strategic vision that recognized and focused on three main goals for the Consortium: improving T & D operations, engaging the customer in a meaningful way, and recognizing that this could positively impact the environment.

Why a public/private partnership such as this?

All of the people involved in the development of the strategic vision felt that to do this effectively we had to have all of the stakeholders “at the table” to put the state in the best position to implement the smart grid in a cost effective manner while still achieving our three main goals. We also felt very strongly that to have a better shot at getting the federal stimulus dollars we needed to present a vision that was something truly new and potentially impactful on a broad scale. We believe this partnership is the best model to achieve all of this. And, a few other dynamics emerged. We recognized that no single entity could get it done, especially in terms of having a coordinated smart grid strategy for the entire state. From the state government there were a number of players including  NYSERDA, the Public Service Commission, the NYC Economic Development Corporation, the academic community, and more.

Let’s talk about the academic community’s role. What is the role of the State University at Stony Brook and the AERTC?
The AERTC facility itself is under construction – the building will be complete by summer 2010, but they are already doing energy research at the university. Much of the research that goes on at the AERTC will feed the Consortium. The Consortium has engaged colleges and universities from throughout the state, not just Stony Brook.

Who are some of the key members of the Consortium’s staff?
The first official meeting of the Consortium’s Board was on September 22nd. We have a great Board of Directors and we now have a budget in place and will be hiring an executive director and some staff.  We are also looking to borrow people from other utilities and entities as needed for different projects and initiatives.

What have been some of the challenges in getting the Consortium set up?

As I mentioned before, the initial challenge was to get a diverse group around the table that have different interests and might be competing with one another. The solution providers involved with the Consortium understandably did not want to participate in a collaborative effort that they perceived might limit their ability to compete. And some of the utilities already had started down a path towards the smart grid so they had somewhat of an institutional interest in pursuing their own paths that they had already started.

Yes, I can see how this would be difficult.
Absolutely. But at the end of the day the vendors have an opportunity to make their solutions known, and the utilities still have the right and ability to choose the best solutions for their specific applications.

If you could look ahead two or three years from now, what are some of the goals of the Consortium that you and the Consortium members will be able to look at as being keys to how you all have been successful?
We see there being a handful of major goals as we move forward. Being successful in attracting a significant amount of stimulus funds from the federal government is, of course, a very important initial goal. A second goal is to what extent we will have been able to execute on the many components of the smart grid: integrating renewables, improving T&D system reliability, reducing outages, and helping the customer manage their energy in a cost effective manner. A final area will be how effective we have been in engaging the customer and getting them actively involved in managing their energy usage. There needs to be a significant customer education effort in order  for this to be successful. To this end the communications piece of our program, basically reaching out to customers to get their buy-in is going to be critical.