Observations at Powering the People 2.0

The Edison Foundation held their 1-day meeting, Powering the People 2.0, on Thursday, March 22.  I was able to visit for a short while, visiting the electric vehicles outside, listening to the introductory speakers and first panel, and visiting the area they called "Innovation Avenue."

My favorite moment of the entire meeting was when the President of Pepco Holdings greeted everyone by saying, "I want to take credit for the early blooming of the cherry blossoms."  I'm pretty sure he did not realize the irony of his own statement, what with the significant contribution the electricity sector makes to climate change.  (One could point out the Pepco owns no generation, but I still found his statement amusing.)

I was encouraged, however, by the response Nicholas Adkins, CEO of AEP, gave to a question.  I don't have the exact quote, but his point was along the lines of, "We need an energy policy that includes a place for clean energy."  His point was that with changing tax policies and no price on carbon, his utility is not able to plan.  AEP has spoken out in favor of pricing carbon in the past, despite their position as one of the largest coal-burning utilities.  It would be great if politicians would take note.

Following up on Jim Pierobon's post on the Energy Collective from the other day, Nick Sinai from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, spoke about the Green Button.  (Mr. Pierobon asks the question, "How long until the Green Button performs up to the hype.")  Mr. Sinai announced that commitments from utilities had grown to cover 23 million customers.  It was not clear the timeline for when these customers would have access to the Green Button, however.  My impression was that a good deal of it would be well off in the future.  (I blogged previously on one of the over-touted features of smart meters here.)

This jives with my impression of the utility sector in general.  They hold conferences like this where they tout innovation (and admittedly, they put on a good show, with big screens, videos, graphics and other technology; yes, the utility industry has lots of money), but they slog along way behind the pace of many other industries.

I spoke with a representative for BGE, which had a booth at the conference.  They are installing smart meters on their customers homes over the next 2 1/2 years and will be providing data to their customers through a partnership with Opower.  Also, BGE issued a press release (pdf) yesterday announcing they would participate in the Green Button initiative.

Almost half of the funding ($200M of $482M) to get these meters installed came from a federal grant.  I suspect the rest will be recovered in their rates.  So, yes, utilities talk a good game about their commitment to innovation, but I wonder whether they would have even pursued this innovative business idea if they had to figure out a real business plan and risk their own money.  BGE's stated goal is to save 1%, but their hope is to get closer to 3%, according to the representative I spoke with.

There was also a great deal of discussion about electric transportation, including a number of vehicles on display.  Here again, although I am strongly supportive of expanding the use of electricity in transportation, I believe utilities are often more hype than action.  (Also, completely oblivious to reality, as I pointed out last year in this post).

All in all, what I saw was more or less what I expected.  The utilities were doing a lot of self congratulations about how innovative they are (or they are going to be. . .soon. . .really!), but for the most part are still slogging along with some small investments and side programs they can point to so they can claim their innovativeness.

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