Schneider Electric smart grid Q&A: Where we’re going (and how we’ll get there)

By Jesse Berst

Schneider Electric one of the smart
grid’s Big Five industrials along with ABB, Alstom Grid, General Electric and
Siemens. But Schneider has a different mindset. The others originally
approached the market from the utility side. Only recently have they begun to
expand their customer-facing activities (end user-facing).

by contrast, tends to think more from the end-user side given its
“medium-voltage” emphasis and its constituent brands such as Square
D. Only recently has Schneider begun to expand its utility-facing activities,
most notably with the June 2011 acquisition of

thought you might like to hear how Schneider views the market and what it sees
coming next. Here’s a Q&A with Don Rickey, the man who runs Schneider’s
infrastructure business in the U.S

Q: As utilities face more pressure to
implement energy management programs, integrate renewables and supply enough
power to meet growing demand, what will be the number one factor in speeding
deployment time of smart grid technology?

Regulatory relief. There are a number of strategies under
study; but in the end, utilities can’t act without regulatory approval. 
Utilities know what to do, but commissions are at a disadvantage. 
Commissioners in most jurisdictions are elected, so turnover is significant. 
That makes it imperative to develop programs to educate commission staffers and
the public.

Q: Is the smart grid about cost savings or is
it a reliability resource?

Both. In total, the average American consumes five times
more energy than the average global citizen. This is because our energy is very
inexpensive. But inexpensive energy is of little value if it isn’t available,
so reliability is part and parcel of business costs.

Q: Does it matter how utilities communicate
the benefits of the smart grid to their customers?

Yes, for the most part, “smart grid” is a term of little
meaning to customers. Practitioners in the art of marketing will tell you that
consistent messages delivered over a frequent schedule via a variety of
channels are the most effective.  So far, this hasn’t happened in the smart
grid area.  Until it does, customers will not develop a sense of urgency until
energy bills are undeniably high and rising. We see this phenomenon now in auto
sales. With public belief that $4 gas now is a fact of life, small cars and
more economical large ones flew off dealer lots during the first quarter of
this year.  If utilities don’t get in front of this, they will appear to be the
villains. This also applies to public service commissions in that they have a
public duty to inform.

Q: What should utilities do to improve their
customer outreach? What should suppliers be doing to help?  

is not a utility-specific problem. They are in a partnership with regulators,
but at the same time they have an array of communications they have to do by
law. Utilities are not marketing firms, nor do they specialize in
communications. They provide safe, reliable and inexpensive electricity.

touch literally all of us, ratepayers and non-ratepayers alike.  For this
reason, they are subject to conflicting pressures far beyond those experienced
by most commercial enterprises. They need help. This must come from enlightened
politicians, far-thinking vendors and their customers.  Energy issues are a
universal problem. Utilities are a delivery mechanism, but they are not the
entire value chain. Outreach will be effective only when opinion leaders from a
variety of stakeholder organizations put their best efforts and budgets into
the task.

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