Interview with Chris Irwin from the U.S. Department of Energy

How long have you worked at DOE?
Almost 5 years – I started at DOE right when the SGIG proposals were flooding into our doors.

What did you do before coming to DOE?
Everything! I’ve worked speccing HVAC for new building construction, capital equipment and process development for hard disk drive and semiconductor manufacturing, low earth orbit satellite communications, and just prior to DOE, AMI mesh network communications.  

What is your role at DOE?
My work at DOE is almost as diverse as my past, but managing $1.5B of the $7.8B in SGIG projects on behalf of DOE is a big piece. I’m part of a team here responsible for communicating the outcomes of the SGIG program, and am involved in the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel, the GridWise Architecture Council, and Green Button.

Where does the grant stand at this point? Is everything installed and is the program over?
About 80% of the deployment phase is done, representing about $6.4B of combined public and private funds. If you consider that one of our longer range goals in this program is to catalyze the full modernization of the US electric grid – a 400-600 billion dollar undertaking, we have a lot more to extract in terms of benefits from this program. Over the next 18 months, we will be sharing new information and analysis on dynamic rate and demand response, AMI, DA, and synchrophasors, and our partner utilities will release dozens of self-generated reports as well.

Other than paying for installation of hardware and software, has the program had any effect on stimulating demand response?
FERC’s latest assessment of demand response and advanced metering issues last Fall spoke directly about SGIG contributions, and our consumer behavior studies are a continuing source of progress in demand response effectiveness. OG&E, one of our consumer behavior partner utilities, has won domestic and international awards for its project, and utilities like SMUD and NV Energy are working on similarly ambitious scales, but longer timelines.

Having worn both private sector and governmental hats over the past decade, what are the biggest changes have you seen in the electricity sector as it relates to DR and SG?
I think the grid has gotten a lot closer to the customer, for a lot of reasons. Society is more sensitive to the loss of power for any duration, and the weather has provided experiences to customers across the nation. Distributed energy resources, whether its rooftop solar or a backup generator, are both increasingly desirable and affordable. More than 40 million Americans have smart meters on their homes and businesses, and 42 million customers have access to their high-resolution data in a common format thanks to the Green Button Initiative and its participating utilities. Stability and reliability cannot be achieved efficiently with a grid-only control approach, and DR in its many forms is part of making customers interested partners.

What do you expect to be the biggest challenge with implementing DR in the next decade?
DR is an essential tool for managing the stability of the grid, but it is not equally available to all participants, on the grid side or on the customer side. From a market perspective, transmission and distribution do not have the opportunity to compete for the same DR resources. There is limited mobility for DR offers, and they are either “baked in” by technology and control system to the distribution system or the transmission system. This seems to limit both the value DR resources can deliver to their owners, as well as the scale up of DR to its potential that grid operators will need.

What advice do you have for young professionals who are interested in the demand response and smart grid area? What do they need to do or understand?
In a fascinating inversion of situations, the grid is experiencing some of the technology revolution backwards compared to the rest of the world. The Internet of Things is already present in the grid, in the form of 50 or so million sensors and machines, while Big Data is in its infancy. In the rest of the world, Big Data is all the rage, and the Internet of Things is dawning. The engineering and business opportunities are like no other place right now.

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