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Smart Grid Summit Recap

By Jon Arnold (ICP) October 08, 2010

Three days may seem like a long time, but the Smart Grid Summit went by in a flash. I’ve been working closely with TMC for several months to put this event together, and by all accounts the effort was worthwhile. Attendance was in line with our expectations and the rooms were full pretty much throughout the summit. This was our third summit and it was easily double the size of the second summit, which in turn was double the size of the first summit. We hope to match that growth trajectory for the next summit in Miami, which is barely four months away. Start planning soon – we’re already in gear to put that program together.

The biggest change this time around was having two concurrent tracks – one focused on utility infrastructure, and one on smart home and innovation. Even with two tracks over three days, there were many topics we couldn’t cover, but I think we gave everyone enough variety to keep things interesting from start to finish. The strong attendance really validates the growing interest in this space, and even though our summit was just one of many vertical markets covered under the broad IT Expo tent, I received many updates that our sessions were among the top draws going.

At the heart of any successful conference is the program, and I think we provided full value for attendees. Our panels had a strong slate of speakers, and the moderators had the right expertise to keep the sessions on target. I’m also very pleased with our keynote speakers and special sessions – all of the talks were engaging and the audience did not lack for questions. There was a lot to take in over the three days, but here are a few of my personal highlights:

Ernie Lewis’s opening keynote. Ernie is with Verizon Business, and having previously been at Southern California Edison, he provided great balance to get things going. I really enjoyed his presenting style, and a key takeaway was that the fact that utilities have been upgrading their networks for many years, but only recently has the smart grid moniker actually stuck. This notion came up often during the summit, and I think that’s an important reality. Utilities haven’t just woken up to the world around them; IP may be a new wrinkle, but it’s not the only thing that makes the grid smart.

Steve Oldham is the USTelecom Association Chairman, and his talk provided a strong message that utilities should work more closely with telecoms to take advantage of their existing networks. This is easier said than done, but his view is that utilities can get a better return on their Capex dollars elsewhere, and instead try to maximize the opportunity for what’s already there with telcos.

Lee Krevat of Sempra provided a great update on what San Diego Gas & Electric is doing with smart grid, and their initiatives are right up there with any other utility. He could have gone on all day talking about what’s working and not working, and it was great to hear first-hand about the realities of moving smart grid forward in a large utility. One example that stood out for me was his anticipation about getting a Nissan Leaf electric vehicle. This is a big deal, especially in California. Utilities, of course, have to figure out how to serve the needs of EV owners, a group that is going to grow very quickly in the next year or so. Lee raised a simple but important question – he’s a consumer like the rest of us, and has been thinking about getting two Leafs for his family. Utilities are typically planning for one EV per household, but what will the impact be on the grid for those having two EVs? Lots to think about there.

Professor Rajit Gadh of UCLA WINMEC has great vision for this market, and had a lot of thought-provoking things to say. The main message for me is that consumers – all of us – are what make the smart grid smart, and not the underlying technology. Many of the sessions amplified this theme, and it served as a strong reminder that smart grid has many moving parts, and not all of them come from vendors.

Professor Emir Macari of California State University also had some strong messages about where smart grid is going. What stood out most here for me was how closely California-based utilities are working with universities like Cal State and UCLA. These institutions have many strong academic and research-based initiatives around smart grid, and they play a key role in making California the clear leader in the U.S. here.

Electric vehicle session. This was a personal favorite, and Jim Parks of SMUD provided the utility perspective, complemented by Sven Thesen of Better Place and Christoph Inauen of Nokia Siemens. Very strong content all around, and we’ll continue exploring this theme at our next summit. EV could well be the killer app for smart grid, and with the market is poised to break out of its nascent stage next year, we won’t have to wait long to find out.

VC/startup roundtable. Another highlight for me. I wanted to take a different path here, and not make this a pitch session for startups. Instead, we had three startups from different segments of smart grid talking straight with two major VCs – Intel Capital and Mayfield Fund, along with a major tech law firm, DLA Piper. Very engaging all around, and the takeaway for me was that entrepreneurship and the startup culture of Silicon Valley is really the key determinant of success – more so than having a great idea or smart grid technology. Gene Wang of People Power really drove that point home, emphasizing that failure is part of the journey to success, and true entrepreneurs just keep working on their goal until they get it right. He also left us with some cautionary advice – the U.S. may be the leaders in this regard, but not to get complacent. China is coming on strong, and smart grid innovation is coming from the world over. Nobody can compete with China’s cost structures, and if they somehow learn to replicate what works in Silicon Valley, the U.S. will lose this critical edge.

Crystal Ball session. This was our closing session, and plenty of people stuck around to see it. We had a very diverse panel – by design – and that made for lots of give and take with the audience. If there was a central message, it would be that the outlook is cloudy. That doesn’t tell us much, but when you hear this from GridWise Alliance and OASIS, there must be something to it. They revisited the theme that utilities have been doing smart things with their networks for years, and only now are consumers starting to notice. Another interesting topic was the smart home, and how the panel felt that this is not really a space that utilities want to own. If so, that opens up the door in a big way for the likes of Google and Microsoft, which really sets the stage for disruption. My view is that these players are simply better able to manage and extract value from the mountains of data smart meters are bringing to utilities.

I could go on, but if I did, that wouldn’t be fair to our attendees who invested time and money to be with us. Some of you may have followed the tweets during the summit, and as coverage turns up in the media, we’ll share that with you. To complement this, I have posted some photos on my blog, and a series of short video clips will soon follow.

Otherwise, we’re thinking ahead to Miami now, and our Call for Papers will be going out shortly. Aside from submitting CFP abstracts, feel free to reach out to me any time with topics you’d like to see or speakers you think would be right for our program. Finally, a big thank you to everyone – the attendees, our sponsors, all the speakers and keynoters, my moderators, and all the folks at TMC and Crossfire Media who have brought the summit into the IT Expo tent.


Jon Arnold is co-founder of Intelligent Communications Partners (ICP), a strategic advisory consultancy focused on the emerging Smart Grid opportunity. To read more of his Smart Grid articles, please visit his columnist page.

Edited by Erin Monda

Founder, Intelligent Communications Partners

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