Lemmings unite!

Compos Mentis

By Compos Mentis

This column is to create a forum for ideas, passions and perspectives on our industry that are controversial, provocative and energising. The views expressed here may be unpopular, politically incorrect, heretical or simply humorous. They may be ideas that all of us have had but didn’t care (or dare) to articulate. The opinions expressed are those of the author alone, but are probably shared by many who have yet to say so.

Now, in unison, chant “Hail Smart Grid! Hail Smart Grid!” As you chant, others will hold their banners high, richly embroidered in large letters with the phrase “Smart Grid” displayed in contrasting colours. Now gather into ever-expanding special interest groups of leaders and disciples. Form Smart Grid divisions and committees. Proclaim your products are Smart Grid products. Establish your own Smart Grid Standards Group! Become a Smart Grid guru. Now crowd in to march together, in an ever growing procession of normally intelligent people.

Start marching, blindly following the leaders at the head of this parade, believing that if enough people chant “Smart Grid” it must be a NEW, GOOD THING. These leaders of the parade are not engineers (unless they work for consultants or vendors.) No, they are lawyers, accountants, politicians and art history majors at the head of the parade, each wedded to their own hazy vision of the smart grid. You can hear them softly mumble, “Digital networks, self forming, self healing, intelligent… or something like that… I think…!” As they mumble, they are secretly wishing someone would agree on a definition of what smart grid really is and that they could understand it. Bystanders wearing shirts with vendor logos will hand them glasses of Kool Aid to sustain them on their march.

This parade, swelling in numbers, will move slowly up the fabled Mountain of Hype, and toward the steep cliffs on the Far Side, which drop precipitously to the churning Sea of Expense below. Soon, more leaders and their disciples, more raving politicians, and more government “experts” gather on the perilously crowded summit. Now, as the chanting and self congratulatory pontificating grows to a crescendo, a few people begin to notice that hundreds of people are blindly marching (or falling) off the cliff into Sea of Expense below, very much like the fabled behaviour of lemmings.

Lemmings, you’ll recall, are soft, furry, mouse-like rodents that favour tundra and open grasslands. Wikipedia tells us that, “While many people believe that lemmings commit mass suicide when they migrate, this is not the case. Driven by strong biological urges, they will migrate in large groups when population density becomes too great. Lemmings can and do swim and may choose to cross a body of water in search of a new habitat. On occasion, and particularly in the case of the Norwegian lemmings in Scandinavia, large migrating groups will reach a cliff overlooking the ocean. They will stop until the urge to press on causes them to jump off the cliff and start swimming, sometimes to exhaustion and death. Lemmings are also often pushed into the sea as more and more lemmings arrive at the shore.”

Yes, of course I am poking fun at the hype-storm and the self anointed spokespersons in our industry – the people who are proclaiming the urgency of smart grid, yet who have very little real understanding what it is or what they are talking about, what it requires, what it costs, where “smart grid” makes sense, and the time scales involved.

Most people agree that AMI is part of the smart grid picture, but then the consensus starts to fade. Only a few people mention that utilities have practiced direct digital control in some expanding form since the 1960s, that microwave and fibre and digital cellular are rapidly assimilated by utilities as they are proven technically and economically sound, or that automation of distribution systems and substations has been happening for decades anyway because it is evolutionary, not revolutionary.

You and I are caught up in the parade of lemmings that I mentioned above, whether we like it or not. Your AMI programme has been renamed. It is now your Smart Grid programme. At the recent DistribuTECH Conference in San Diego, California every vendor, every booth, every publication somehow had the name “Smart Grid” on it. To deny your smart grid label was to claim the world was flat.

If you are a utility vendor you can no longer be seen as simply a meter vendor or AMI system vendor. That would make you seem small, insular, closed minded, and lacking in the big picture perspective. No, you are now a smart grid vendor! If you are a utility leader you cannot say, “We’re going to wait and see.” Neither can you say, “We have already been doing what you call smart grid for years.” Why? Heresy! That could make you seem unenlightened or lacking in vision or enthusiasm. So instead, you will form a task force to investigate smart grid, or perhaps launch some demonstration programmes or pilot projects.

But we, as an industry, can do better than that.

Our industry has had its share of fads and fancies. They come and they go. Smart grid is in fashion now. Good – let’s take the ride! Really great – but only if we keep our balance, define our terms, set our standards, identify the best technologies, establish realistic objectives, base our decisions on sound economics not wishful thinking, and understand that each utility is different. There is no one-size-fits-all.

We must avoid the buzzwords de jour and must never be reluctant to demand that smart grid plans and investments pass the smell test, regardless of where the parade seems to be heading. Yes, there really is a lot of value buried in all the smart grid hyperbole. Dig deep and ask the tough questions. Demand clarity. Some real value is there, hiding beneath the hype. Work harder to find it.

Finally, don’t gulp the Kool-Aid just because someone handed it to you!