CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--U.S. energy objectives are closely intertwined with--and in many cases, rely upon--the country's broadband infrastructure, government officials and smart-grid company executives say.
The Federal Communications Commission on Monday held a "field hearing" at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on the role of communications in energy and environment. It was an information-gathering session designed to help set a national broadband strategy.
The entire notion of the smart grid supposes connectivity at different points along the grid. Adding digital technologies to the existing system will allow energy to be used more efficiently, increase reliability, and let grid operators use more solar and wind power, say smart-grid advocates.
During the hearing, speakers argued that broader broadband coverage lays the foundation for those benefits by enabling smart-grid applications, such as home energy monitoring, alerting utilities to outages, and charging plug-in vehicles economically and without stressing the grid.
U.S. Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who has been involved in both telecom deregulation and energy legislation, said here Monday that future economic growth is tied closely to the intersection of energy and broadband.
"The smart grid is an electricity Internet. Without the broadband revolution, you cannot have the revolution we're talking about," Markey said. "If you look at the energy sector and the broadband sector, you can determine the economic growth of that country."
In the case of consumers, smart-grid companies are already relying heavily on home broadband connections. Smart meters are equipped with networking gear so that data can regularly be sent back and forth between customers and utilities. Millions of smart meters will be installed in the next three years. But there will still be millions of homes without smart meters, and many utilities have limited meter communications for security reasons.
As a result, energy monitoring companies are designing products so that they can function with an Internet connection instead. Rather than have a smart meter provide real-time energy use to an energy display, for example, data can be collected using different workarounds, including Internet gateways that give consumers access to a Web portal.
Wider broadband coverage would open up energy-efficiency services delivered through home energy displays to a bigger set of people, said Adrian Tuck, CEO of Tendril, a company focused on smart energy monitoring.
"It's cheaper to give low-income families access to a broadband than it is to give them smart meters," he said. "We use the existing broadband to compensate for the fact that smart meters are not in place."
Better broadband coverage opens up the market to more businesses, too, said Rick Counihan, president of regulatory affairs at energy-efficiency company EnerNoc.
EnerNoc ratchets down electricity use in office and industrial buildings during peak times by connecting to its customers' meters. That communication with many smaller companies is done with a cellular modem, rather than an Internet connection, which makes the service more expensive, he said.
For utilities, connectivity is integral to improving the reliability of the grid, according to executives from utility companies who said that more radio spectrum would help ensure reliable communications to detect outages.
The other area that needs work on the government level is standards and interoperability. The National Institute of Standards and Technology is now leading an effort to establish the necessary standards for smart-grid, covering everything from cybersecurity to in-home communication protocols. But there would need to be coordination among various government agencies for new grid products to be plug and play.
Regulations need to be put in place to promote efficiency at utilities and to reflect peak-time and off-peak pricing of electricity, panelists said.
"The technology is there. The markets are there. The entrepreneurial drive is there," said venture investor Chuck McDermott of Rockport Capital. "The hairball occurs at the regulatory side. We don't have a system that accommodates a dynamic market."