Federal Communications Commission

MIT Field Hearing on Broadband’s Role in Green Energy and the Environment

December 4th, 2009 by Nick Sinai - Energy and Environment Director

This past Monday the FCC held a field hearing at MIT to discuss how broadband can facilitate the smart grid and the energy information economy. The house was packed, the discussion lively, and there was an impressive set of technology demonstrations afterwards. We were honored to have in attendance U.S. Congressman Ed Markey, Secretary Ian Bowles of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, FCC Chairman Genachowski, and FCC Commissioners Copps, Clyburn, and Baker.

The first panel provided context for understanding the role that the smart grid, and other smart technologies, can play in the U.S. achieving its energy goals. Dr Grochow of the MIT Energy Initiative shared how MIT has been able to achieve a significant reduction in its energy consumption through building energy audits and addressing the large energy requirements of IT through fairly simple measures like turning computers off rather than having their screen saver come on.

Thanks to all the members of the first panel: Peter Brandien of New England ISO, Commissioner Phil Guidice of Massachusetts Division of Energy Resources, Dr. Jerrold Grochow of the MIT Energy Initiative, and Bruce Walker of National Grid.

During the second panel the discussion shifted to provide some examples of how vendors are using energy information to increase the reliability and efficiency of our electricity grid. CEO Adrian Tuck of Tendril, which provides an energy management system for residential users, highlighted that a standard clothes dryer is preset to dry a load in 58 minutes. Simply by adding twenty minutes to the drying time, however, the dryer will consume 50% less energy. Informed customers could decide if they needed the convenience of faster cycle or might prefer to set a longer cycle in exchange for a lower energy bill.

The panel also discussed how innovative companies use broadband to 1) carry energy information at frequent, regular intervals from end user devices to their systems or devices, 2) present energy information on in-home displays or web portals, and 3) directly control loads to lower energy consumption and carbon emissions.

Following the panel, the commissioners and audience experienced first-hand some of the new products and services of the energy information economy. Control4, iControl, EnergyHub, Opto22, Tendril and Verisae showcased a suite of products aimed at helping residential and commercial customers better manage their energy use.

Thanks to all the members of the second panel: Rick Counihan of EnerNOC, Chuck McDermott of Rockport Capital, Adrian Tuck of Tendril, and Dan Johnson of Verisae. Thanks also to the vendors who participated in the showcase.

A number of common themes emerged across both panels, focusing on the key issues and barriers to an accelerated adoption of the smart grid.

First, a number of panelists stressed a need for universal broadband coverage to allow better access to energy information, especially for low-income families that lack access to the Internet.

Second, several panelists noted that a significant part of the value of the smart grid is derived from providing end users (whether building operators or individuals) more granular, real-time energy consumption data. We heard that many smart meters that have been deployed today have this customer-facing functionality built in, but are not “turned on” to provide data to customers.

Third, there was general agreement that cyber security was a critical issue for the smart grid. Dr. Grochow provided an analogy to the Internet. Security was not seriously considered during the Internet’s infancy, and we are still trying to patch the holes decades later. He argued that a secure smart grid needs to encrypt energy data at the source.

Fourth, Chuck McDermott, a general partner at Rockport Capital, highlighted the importance of developing open standards for the smart grid. Working closely with NIST and other standards bodies, the U.S. needs to achieve an interoperable, “plug-and-play” smart grid that avoids vendor lock-in.

Fifth, Bruce Walker of National Grid discussed the growing importance of the data traversing the Smart Grid network. A ubiquitous wireless data network that reliably provides low-latency data communications during emergencies will be required. To meet these need, and to encourage standardization of networking approaches, he requested that the FCC identify broadband spectrum suitable for critical infrastructure use.

Lastly, Dan Johnson of Verisae reminded us that in the end the adoption of smart grid technologies is heavily dependent upon their business case. End users will need to see a compelling ROI to take action.

I want to personally thank Congressman Markey, Secretary Bowles, the chairman, the commissioners, the panelists, and the technology vendors for providing such an engaging and informative discussion. A number of the issues raised lent further support to what we have seen through our public notice.

As we begin to formalize our recommendations for Congress, I encourage you to view the recorded webcast and add to our discussion by leaving your comments. I look forward to hearing from you.

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