BY MANY ACCOUNTS, THE PAST YEAR HAS BEEN "THE YEAR of the consumer" in the power industry. That distinction, of course, is a double-edged sword.
The consumer - dare I mention "the Bakersfield effect"? - came roaring onto the national scene as pockets of discontent over smart meters made themselves known. In several high-profile regulatory cases, state utility commissions slowed the trajectory of investor-owned utilities, insisting on a balance of financial risk between shareholder and consumer and tangible benefits for the latter. Consumers themselves came under the microscope as a subject of study. What do we know about this strange animal and where does the industry need more research to better understand it?
These developments demanded that knowledge centers focus on consumers and that their concerns be included in this year's list of the top 11 knowledge centers for smart grid.
The same goes for electric vehicles and storage. Electric vehicles of various stripes actually hit the market in the past few months and nearly everyone, it seems, needs information about them-particularly utilities seeking to ensure that the grid can accommodate them.
With many states on an uphill march to meet renewable energy portfolio standards or self-imposed goals, and federal stimulus dollars directed at various efforts around energy storage, that topic also gained a much higher profile than ever before.
Thus the following list has shifted from last year. In an industry with a deep bench of organizations that qualify as knowledge centers, this year's list reflects emerging hot topics.
Knowledge needs are changing
Of course, the nature of one's query is what makes a topic hot. Widespread organic interest certainly makes consumers, electric vehicles and storage top of mind. But any given knowledge center may be critical to the seeker based on his or her needs.
If you're a utility, your staff's needs for knowledge range across the entire spectrum of topics. If you are a newly minted state regulator, you're standing right between those two parties, with a need to assess the pressures on utilities and the rights of consumers. If you're that elusive consumer (let's face it, we all are), you may be hungry to understand those smart meter-related headlines or presidential speeches on energy, and what it all means to you and your pocketbook.
If you seek knowledge about consumer issues, you'd do well to consult the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC) or the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates (NASUCA). Early this year, the SGCC released the "2011 State of the Consumer Report," which synthesized myriad, disparate studies about consumer attitudes and behaviors, while identifying significant gaps in knowledge. Last year, NASUCA released the influential white paper "The Need for Essential Consumer Protections: Smart Metering Proposals and the Move to Time-Based Pricing," which coincided with NASUCA taking a bigger role in industry discussions in Washington and many states.
Those cases in which an organization issues a report that crystallizes the discussion of the moment and advances the conversation are somewhat rare. More often, an organization's consistent efforts continued to inform an ongoing discussion.
Thus if electric vehicles are on your mind, the Electric Drive Transportation Association will be on your short list. Punch "energy storage" into a search engine and it would be hard to miss the Electricity Storage Association. If your agenda includes home area networks, you're likely to find the ZigBee Alliance or its "coopetition" useful.
Mercurial smart grid
I haven't seen the smart grid compared to a drop of mercury, so I'll coin that analogy here. It has been broadly defined as the addition of digital technology, especially computing and communications, to make the grid more reliable and resilient, while creating a two-way flow of information down to the meter and, possibly, beyond. But as soon as you put your finger on it, it tends to re-form in a new shape. Defining it can be frustrating.
That point carries over to the knowledge centers serving the industry and the public. Organizations listed here either focus squarely on the topic as defined earlier or they are organizations much broader in scope that happen to include smart grid technology, policy or practices. No one in the electric utility industry can escape the influence of major organizations such as the Edison Electric Institute and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, or the steady output of fundamental research by the Electric Power Research Institute, which has become a staple for grid modernization.
Weights and measures
This list, therefore, is not intended as a linear ranking. Instead, we provide an indication of each group's size and output by using a handful of criteria so readers can get a quick sense of the dynamics and influence of the organization. You can weigh the apples and oranges. And with such a deep bench of knowledge resources available, providing 11 of them is an admittedly arbitrary number by which to make a cutoff.
A word on the criteria and their role in this list: Quantity and quality may be the twin pillars of influence, but weighing them is art, not science. An organization with a small membership of heavy hitters may produce and disseminate more knowledge than a group with a seemingly endless roster. One influential report can produce more knowledge than a flurry of white papers. Thus we've applied and weighed objective criteria to develop this list of knowledge centers. But behind the numbers, as always, lies a more complex picture.