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Can More Government Funding and Initiatives Help Drive Smart Utilities?

The utilities industry has sometimes been criticized for being slow to change. But in the last few years has undergone some of its biggest changes than in the previous few decades.

With external pressures coming from all quarters, from regulatory to economic and geopolitical, the industry is having to transform the way it works, developing new business models and adopting new technologies to meet demands to be more efficient, more affordable, and more sustainable.

We got a sense of this urgency and ambition at DISTRIBUTECH 2023 earlier this month, where utilities, technology providers and industry leaders gathered to see and hear about the latest developments in the industry.

We took this opportunity to speak to Wi-SUN Alliance members at the show about a new piece of research we commissioned among senior professionals at U.S. utility companies, designed to test the ‘pulse’ of the utility market.

With ageing infrastructure one of the biggest challenges in building a new energy future, it was interesting to see calls for more funding from government to help drive smart utility development, along with the need for more pilot projects/implementations and greater co-operation between public and private sectors.

Our members agree, acknowledging President Biden’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) legislation, which set aside $65bn to support broadband coverage and adoption, $50bn to protect against extreme weather events, and $7.5bn to build a national network of EV chargers:

Jeffrey Tufts, Global Director of Utility Solutions at Cisco comments: “There is no shortage of government initiatives that don’t come with funding, but when we do see an initiative that comes with funding it accelerates adoption. We saw this with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) and hope to see it again with the IIJA in the next few years.”

For Jeff Scheb, Director of Product Management at Landis+Gyr, it is more about building the business case: “Many utilities are already looking for ideas of what can be done and talking to vendors, but really it’s about getting out there, doing the pilots and working out the kinks. This will help utilities prove the value of what they want to do and build a business case.”

Recognizing that transforming the customer experience is critical to success, we also asked our survey respondents about what they see as the key areas of focus for smart grid deployments.

The shift to electric vehicles is top of mind, with nearly three-quarters of senior utilities’ professionals saying that EV charging will be the biggest focus over the next 6-11 months.

In response to more extreme weather/climate related events and the risk of disrupted energy supplies means that outage management is also a priority, along with advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and distributed energy resources (DER).

Asked about the communications networks technologies that will support these deployments, around three-quarters of respondents acknowledge that a hybrid of two or more technologies – including cellular, power line communication, RF mesh and Wi-Fi – will be very important for future smart utility development.

In the second of our series of blogs based on our smart utility survey and interviews at DISTRIBUTECH 2023, we will look at the challenges around energy security.

For more information on the topics raised here, read more in our press release.