For the electrical contractor (EC), finding a role in the smart grid shouldn’t be a matter of “wait and see.” Now is the time to prepare for this growing opportunity. If your work involves building automation and lighting controls, you are well on your way.

In any discussion of the smart grid, it’s important to recognize this emerging market will grow and evolve in fits and starts. There are hurdles to meet in matters of capacity, regulatory oversight and consumer behavior, but the technology is largely ready. It’s more a matter of discovering innovative ways to apply today’s technology in a quest for a stable grid. Some big things are happening, and every step is bringing a smart grid world into focus.

Today, there are pockets of opportunity for the EC, offering a glimpse into some of the elements that can play a role in smart power delivery and smart use by commercial and residential customers alike.

“The smart grid offers a sweet spot for the electrical contractor,” said Jack McGowan, president of Energy Control Inc. (ECI).

Based in Rio Rancho, N.M., ECI is a systems integrator and energy service company (ESCO) providing energy engineering and building control services.

“It introduces a two-way world between communication and power transfer. The technology involved in a smart grid will require an EC’s expertise. Though smart meters are a big component right now [typically installed by utilities], it’s a misconception to think they define the smart grid. That would be like having a smartphone that offers just one or two apps.

“I wonder if enough ECs are picking up on this market opportunity,” McGowan said. “HVAC guys certainly have as they get involved in building automation, retrofits and lighting automation.”

A market making strides
Rob Pratt is considered one of the early thought leaders behind the smart grid. He manages Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s (PNNL) Smart Grid R&D program activities for the U.S. Department of Energy. Pratt leads a team that looks at communications architecture, advanced control technology and the combined engineering and economic aspects of a future grid. Pratt said he has seen a boom in smart grid progress over the past couple years.

“The amount of smart grid being installed as a result of ARRA [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009] is a profound opportunity we didn’t see coming,” Pratt said. “It’s really moved the ball along. The demo projects that started before that and continue are introducing smart grid technology to the masses. Utilities are surveying their customers to gather their thoughts and attitudes regarding power delivery and energy usage to better discover how to approach them regarding the smart grid. At present, about half the utilities in the United States are actively involved in smart grid development and customer education.”

McGowan said utilities face a challenge in the residential market.

“Residential will be tough at present, but some utilities are already getting their consumers up to speed on a new mindset, namely tracking and being aware of energy use in their homes. They are educating them as to how prices can fluctuate during the course of a day. There are more and more electronics being applied in energy delivery and use. The progress of smart grid in the commercial and industrial markets is certainly ahead of residential.”

With the smart grid has come a set of tools, notably the aforementioned demand response, distributed generation and consumer energy storage.

The reserves from stored energy could help alleviate the intermittency of renewable power when added to a smart grid structure. Pratt said more than half the states already have renewable portfolio standards that integrate clean-energy options into their state’s energy picture.

A role for many players
“An integral goal of smart grid is creating a safety net for the power grid, something you can’t do now,” Pratt said. “In a smart grid world, a power user can take load down instantaneously and faster than a power plant can.” Commercial, consumer and governmental worlds are also working together, so a new energy-delivery model can emerge and take hold.

Schneider Electric-United States, headquartered near Chicago, manufactures building automation systems, energy management systems, metering and automation controls, and more. The company’s customers come from such markets as residential, commercial and industrial, including utilities. Schneider realized its business was aligned to take on the smart grid. Serving the distribution side of power delivery, however, demanded new skills and talents. Therefore, Schneider added Spain-based Telvent to its family. Telvent offers software and real-time monitoring that can be used to efficiently manage power grids and other infrastructure.

“Smart supply, smart demand and smart grid is the future and will be achieved through ‘intelligent’ communicative devices,” said Allen Breeze, senior vice president of Power Business for Schneider Electric. “The distribution of power delivery and consumer power management is where ECs can engage the market. They are the experts who can provide next steps in energy efficiency and managing power. Some customers are trying to meet state or local energy-use compliance; some are trying to save their bottom line; and some want to reduce their carbon footprint. ECs can ask these questions. It’s no longer just providing a RFP and cost. It’s holding a discussion to provide solutions. The EC is competing against HVAC installers, low-voltage guys and others. Many types of contractors [are] all poised to take advantage or are currently playing active role in the smart grid market.”

Some hurdles
The Energy Information Standards Alliance (EIS) based in Morgan Hill, Calif., states its mission is to “educate and provide information to policymakers, utilities, the media, the financial community and stakeholders on how energy management systems and smart grid technologies can help modernize our electricity system and provide customers with new information and options for managing their electricity use.”

“I don’t know how fast [smart grid] adoption will accelerate,” Christopher Kotting, the executive director for EIS, said. “But I do know we must change how people think about their electricity usage. It’s a challenge of public policy and consumer thinking. The idea of a smart grid will accelerate within generational divisions. Those who grew up with cell- and smartphones as everyday devices will embrace and grow up thinking about energy in a way consistent with an intelligent cooperative grid.”

Strong collaboration between private and public entities is working to ensure a smart grid will be workable and sustainable. The U.S. Government’s Smart Grid Initiative, the Smart Grid Operability Panel, the GridWise Alliance, EIS and any number of recently formed state stakeholder organizations are but a few of the existing collaborative efforts.

“Contractors, manufacturers, government agencies are all working together through alliances, organizations and other means to look at operability standards, training and education, and policy,” Pratt said. “It’s a matter of thinking differently across the chain of power generation delivery and use. Training contractors that can prescribe solutions, educating regulators so they understand smart grid, and communicating the smart grid concept to the consumer to earn their buy-in are all being addressed today.”

“A lot of people are working hard to make the climb less arduous,” Kotting said. “The man-hours involving consultants, utilities, private-sector companies, both domestic and international, are staggering. I hesitate to think of the hours I’ve spent on conference calls with some of the brightest people. I’m seeing the beginning of an avalanche to come.”


GAVIN is the owner of Gavo Communications, a marketing services firm serving the construction, landscaping and related design industries. He can be reached at gavocomm@comcast.net.