Repetition becoming key theme as technology conferences mushroom

January 4, 2020
Smart Grid Today
Same speakers.  Same people.  Same information.  Same events.  Utilities and vendors, both dealing with restrained travel allotments, are beginning to dread registering for smart grid technology conferences -- but that has hardly stopped such confabs from sprouting, experts told us recently in exclusive interviews.  As firms look to squeeze the most out of tightening budgets, experts offered suggestions on which conferences provide the most value.

“I hear every week from someone in the community that there are just too many” conferences, Dan Delurey, president of the Assn for Demand Response & Smart Grid (DRSG), told us recently in an exclusive interview.  “It seems to be challenging to folks within the community.  Budgets are tight for travel.  The key thing is people really have to start looking at these events more closely than they have.”

DistribuTech, held January 24-26 in San Antonio, remains the preeminent smart grid conference, the experts agreed.

The largest industry trade show, which event organizers said last year had more than 8,400 attendees from 46 countries, brings vendors from various disciplines to display their wares, the experts said.  That gives firms with only a passing interest in grid modernization plenty of exposure to the regular players while also letting more aggressive utilities and vendors link up to expand their systems, they said.  [EDITOR'S NOTE:  The panels offered at DistribuTech in the last two years overall have been short on reportable content.  The conference, to us, has become a show and tell – to which everyone flocks.  It is no doubt a good place to hobnob.  But unless DistribuTech planners make dramatic adjustments going forward, people looking for substantive public discussion of important smart grid topics likely will be disappointed.]
Town Hall, Grid-Interop valued
For policy-minded people, Washington, DC-area events usually give firms the best access to US policymakers, Austin Montgomery, smart grid program lead at Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute, told us recently in an exclusive interview.  Such events give insider updates on important legislation and shifting policy discussions in part because of their proximity to federal agencies, he said.

When it comes to national policy, the National Town Hall on DR gives the best insight, though the slow nature of energy policy means attending every year is unnecessary, Phil Davis, a senior manager at Schneider Electric, told us recently in an exclusive interview.
Similarly, Grid-Interop usually gives product and strategic planners the most value because of its close ties to the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel and the constantly shifting national standards, he said.

“It gives you an idea of what government regulatory policy looks like and what directions the technology is taking,” Davis said of Grid-Interop, held last month in Phoenix (SGT,Dec-07).  “You get a lot of folks coming together on standards development.  It's really not a conference where you go to buy anything.”
‘Energy efficiency’ used widely
On a global scale, the Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change introduces people to national policymakers and international non-governmental organizations, Delurey said.  He attended the most recent COP 17, held last month in Durban, South Africa, and used the conference's free-form atmosphere to educate people about smart grid technology and DR, he said.
“The people on the COP circuit don't really know anything about smart grid and they don't necessarily think about smart grid being something under the categories that they talk about,” Delurey said.  “They think about traditional energy efficiency, but don't really think about smart grid.”
[EDITOR'S NOTE:  EPRI PQ and Smart Distribution 2010, in Quebec City, was one of the most impressive international conferences in the last two years.]
ISO, NARUC confabs noted
For regional implementation, vendors and utilities would benefit from ISO conferences because ISOs control significant portions of the grid, Davis said.  Those conferences update firms on how to best work within those ISOs' networks, he said.

NARUC's annual winter meeting in Washington, DC, tops the list for regulatory policy conferences by consistently promoting interaction between utilities, vendors and the state regulators that guide those firms, Katherine Hamilton, an associate with Washington, DC-based public affairs firm Quinn Gillespie & Associates, told us recently.
Getting into a regulator's ear at that conference can pay off later, as firms can influence policy thinking in an intimate setting rather than at formal commission meetings, she said.

“They have to make decisions on investment in the grid, and you can tell them it's prudent,” said Hamilton, the former president of the GridWise Alliance.  “And it's in a place where they're not making the decision.”
‘Be choosy’
Firms and utilities should seek diverse, niche conferences to strengthen their grid modernization plans, Hamilton said.

For example, attending Bloomberg's New Energy Finance Summit held March 19-21 in New York would connect utilities and vendors with deep-pocketed visionaries in the clean energy field, she said.  An event like the Electric Drive Transportation Assn's EV Symposium held May 6-9 in Los Angeles could fuel grid innovation for EVs, she said.

“You have to look beyond your normal world,” Hamilton said.  “You have to be choosy to hit different stakeholder bases.”

Such advice is unfeasible for most utilities and vendors, Delurey said.  Smaller budgets limit options, so utilities and vendors might have difficulty justifying attendance at such events, he said.

“You're going to self-select on what you need to know about,” Delurey noted.  “This goes to networking.  While some conferences draw the same people, that's not such a bad thing because those are the people they want to get to know better.”
Notes compared
Though attendees occasionally learn something new from panels and speakers, the most significant information comes from side conversations with peers, Montgomery said.  For example, many vendors and utilities extract examples of what approaches or technologies worked from others in the industry that can guide them when they reach deployment, he said.

Networking primarily drives conference attendance, Montgomery said.  But with smart grid technology en vogue, many for-profit organizers dug in to take advantage of the heightened profile, he said.
The explosion of paid conferences is likely a fad, Hamilton said.  Tailored webinars will likely take the place of blowout shows, she predicted.  Life for smart grid conference planners will get harder if they cannot differentiate themselves from other events, she said.

“Half the time you talk to people in the hall,” Hamilton said.  “A lot of time you don't even listen to the speakers.  It's the same people on all the panels.  At so many of those I was one of the usual suspects.”
‘Umbrella term’ found
Smart grid set a “precedent” for industry conferences because it linked several nascent industries and got significant federal support, Davis said.
The $3.4 billion in ARRA funds for direct smart grid investment, Congressional legislation, state renewable portfolio standards and billions more stimulus dollars for energy start-ups propped up the clean energy field, he said.  Smart grid became the “umbrella term' for all those related fields, which generated interest in very broad, far-reaching smart grid conferences, he said.

That scramble for cash by conference profiteers diluted conference quality, Delurey suggested.  Many conference organizers merely copy the formula of longstanding institutions like DistribuTech, which means those conferences bring in familiar speakers expounding on redundant topics, he said.
Big change coming?
Rather than smart grid grabbing the marquee at future conferences, it likely will become a small “work track” at more established, industry-specific conferences, Davis predicted.
That would flip the current scenario on its head, but Davis said cannot envision how the many smart grid conferences would maintain profitability.

“I've often wondered how much attendance you'd get at some of these conferences if the people speaking weren't also registered attendees,” Davis said, estimating many smart grid conferences can include 100 speakers.  “To be meaningful, attendees have to be in 500-1,000 people range.  Otherwise you have the same people talking to each other.”

© 2012 Modern Markets Intelligence Inc..  IMPORTANT: This article was reproduced from the January 4, 2020 issue of Smart Grid Today with the limited permission of the owner.  To view the full story on Smart Grid Today’s website, please visit

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