Siemens smart grid chief talks education, innovation and the need for STEM

The bar for the smart grid is high, says Siemens smart grid chief Paul Camuti, because electricity in the U.S. is reliable and cheap. We spoke to him from GridWeek 2010.

It's eight o'clock in the morning on a blustery October day in Washington, D.C., and all Paul Camuti wants is some coffee.

He's standing in a Starbucks coffee shop two blocks from the convention center, waiting in line for his morning brew and watching workers erect a massive geodesic dome with the topography of the Earth screened over its faces.

"Any idea what that is?" a barista asks him.

His gaze breaks, and he replies quickly, "I have no idea."

Then he backtracks.

"Actually, it's being built by the company I work for, about something called 'smart grid.' "

The barista replies without missing a beat. "What's smart grid?"

Camuti ever so slightly cringes -- after all, he hasn't yet had his morning coffee -- takes a breath and begins.

"It's about our power distribution system, and how we need to bring to state-of-the-art technology to it to achieve our goals of energy independence."

"Oh." The barista places his coffee on the counter.

"Thanks," he replies.

It's been a busy couple of days for Camuti, smart grid chief for German conglomerate Siemens, and he's no doubt had to make this abbreviated elevator pitch more than once. In the nation's capitol this week for his company's Smart Grid Tour -- which conveniently coincides with GridWeek 2010 -- Camuti's goal is to educate utility companies and industrial clients about how the smart grid is the way of the future.

I spoke to him this morning about his mission.

SmartPlanet: We recently attended this year's Cleantech Forum in New York, and it admittedly felt a little more optimistic than last year. What's the feeling at GridWeek?

PC: It appears that there's strong attendance again. My general observation is that people are talking about real experiences now -- there's a little bit of a shift from the theoretical approach to smart grid to actual experiences. it's sort of a natural thing after the stimulus -- people's experiences with projects that are coming online. There's a little more substance.

[GridWeek] is more utility-focused, I guess you could say. It's the vendor community across a pretty complex set of stuff for smart grid. From the generation and transmission side all the way to home [energy management] providers. You don't have a lot of consumers here. You have a lot of utility people.

SmartPlanet: The Siemens Smart Grid Tour is in town. What is its goal, and how do you know you've succeeded?

PC: Generally when we started this some months ago, the goal was to actually get out and explain our perspective on what smart grid is. At the time we were thinking about doing this, the saying was if you had 10 people in a room and asked them what smart grid was, you got 11 opinions. We wanted to creatively and definitively explain what smart grid was about.

This is end-to-end. The target for us was actually to facilitate a conversation between two sides of the meter -- we're active with customers on both sides, utilities and industrial and commercial clients. This brings those two sets of customers together.

Finally, there were some unintended consequences. We've had some of the general public come in because when you pop this dome up in Weehawken across from New York City, people are bound to wonder what the heck is going on.

SmartPlanet: What are your priorities for this conference? 2011? 2012? Beyond?

PC: My team was just formed from people inside the company, and dedicated to something called "smart grid applications." But you can't deliver applications unless the infrastructure is in place.

There are really two things. Our two main focuses are what we're doing with the dome -- a consistent story for the smart grid, from [power] generation to residential, and position it as the energy value chain for what we're doing -- and then we're specifically trying to address applications that would fall on top of that.

We're focused on meter data management -- how do you take data from smart meter and AMI deployments and make it useful for the consumer and the utility? -- and electrical vehicle infrastructure, which we're announcing today .

We think that the electrification of transportation is key to energy infrastructure. You've got to be able to charge the cars for the early adopters that will be the technical lunatics to get this started, and make it a value to them, whether charging off-peak or what have you.

Finally, the other area of applications [we're focusing on] is using loads as resources in the power system. A building as a load -- if you can manage that load and put a control system in the building, you can manage the energy footprint of the building and provide that as a resource to the power delivery side of the meter.

SmartPlanet: What are your most difficult challenges right now?

PC: Because of the diversity of the conversation, how we ever got two words to cover everything we're talking about is sort of a dramatic simplification. "Smart grid" is hard -- it's difficult to talk about the "New Energy Era" with so many components to it.

Technology is moving [forward]. There's a reason the power system looks the way it does. We take for granted that electricity in the United States is very reliable, very stable and very cheap. We have a very high bar of moving new technology into this arena.

As technologies become more cost effective, we still have this hurdle of price performance. How come we don't have 100 percent of our power from wind power? The challenge is really an innovation challenge -- getting the technology into the market at the right price point.

When you boil down the benefit, people have a fear that you're adding a lot of cost to the system, but can you guarantee a specific benefit? The answer to that is on either side: you either raise the benefit or lower the cost.

SmartPlanet: Cisco, IBM, Siemens, and countless smaller companies -- everyone wants a piece of of the 'smart,' 'intelligent,' 'connected' grid, but it's all got to work together. How do you ensure stability with all these different players involved?

PC: We built this very complex system [called the power grid]. It's already complex. It's already in play in the system today. What we're talking about is making it more intelligent. How do you make sure it's reliable and stable and secure? I would argue it is now.

We've done that with a couple of levers: regulation and standards. For regulation, I'm thinking NERC, where there's some fundamental safety and energy reliability requirement. That works pretty well in the system today. Those regulations may have to change, because the technology is changing a little bit.

As for companies, I don't know that any one company is too worried about how much money any other company makes. We want to support an ecosystem that has as much innovation as possible into it, where ideas can easily be translated into benefit.

The government plays a part in that -- making sure that there's focus on STEM education. Generally, the U.S. needs to continue to focus on building the pipeline of people who can work in this environment. There's a need for a technically-oriented workforce and it's really an American competitive thing that appears in virtually every industry. It's highlighted in smart grid because of the power engineering piece of it, as we've historically underinvested in the space. There's a little bit of a renaissance going on in that space. It's something I'm personally passionate about.

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