By: Diane Stirling
(315) 443-8975

If existing, readily available smart grid technologies are beneficial to utility companies, their customers, and the environment as a whole, why aren’t utilities adopting them?

That’s the question three School of Information Studies (iSchool) faculty members will probe with a $333,190 grant from the National Science Foundation. The grant has been awarded to Associate Professor Jason Dedrick, principal investigator for the project, “Adoption of Smart Grid Technologies by Electrical Utilities: Factors Influencing Organizational Innovation in a Regulated Environment.” Dedrick will work with iSchool faculty members Professor Jeffrey Stanton and Associate Professor Murali Venkatesh, as co-principal investigators, to conduct an assessment regarding the technology adoption issue.

Determining what might comprise specific barriers to utilities’ adoption of the more intuitive, efficient, and responsive smart grid energy management system is the focus of the project, Dedrick said.

“The current grid is a dumb grid–it has almost no technology built into it. The system is being taxed by the loads being put on it, and right now, there is no way to adjust usage to the amount of availability,” Dedrick explained. In contrast, the smart grid has the potential to address all of those issues, provide greater reliability, match demand to supply, bring on more intermittent sources of energy such as solar and wind power, and repair and respond to emergencies much more rapidly, he said. Despite those apparent benefits, however, utilities are not adopting smart grid technologies quickly, he said.    

Through his preliminary work with some utilities on the issue, “it is clear that the existing policies matter,” and that “the utilities clearly are motivated by regulations and policies that may require some level of renewable energy or some incentives. But there are also differences between utility type, structure, and organizational factors. Those are the kind of things we expect to come into play” in the study, according to the professor.

The study has three components. The first year, the group will develop comparative case studies of six to eight utility companies. Through interviews and data collection with those utilities, the investigators “will seek to understand in some depth what comprises the decision process, strategic thinking, motivations and operating environments that exist” on the issue. Utilities that are municipally-owned, co-op owned, and located within a range of states will be examined to provide an assortment of regulatory environments for the study.

The second phase will consist of surveying utility companies across America to obtain a scientific look at understanding the benefits for them in adopting smart grid technology, and further, the outcomes of incorporating organizational innovation.  

“Given that each state has own regulatory environment, the study will determine if it is the organizational structure, management, culture, consumer resistance,  or some other factor that is preventing or promoting the adoption of smart grid technologies by the utilities,” Dedrick said. Understanding those issues “will hopefully provide some insight to people that are making policy on the corporate side, on the government side and within utilities to try to better understand what it would take to get the technology adopted.”

In the third segment, the faculty members will compose whitepapers, journal articles, and present talks at conferences and other forums to publish and distribute their findings.  Efforts will be made to reach out to various audiences—the business community, the policy-making community, and government entities, according to Dedrick.

The project, which is expected to take place over the next three years, is part of a bigger picture on green energy policies and information systems technologies that Dedrick has been studying for some time. He notes that smart grid technology adoption “is an important piece of environmental sustainability and part of the bigger picture of how we can use technology to avoid, mitigate, and prevent environmental damage and to support sustainability.”

“My assumption is that, at some point, these technologies will be in place. But that’s the interesting question–why is it happening slowly, and what would it take for it to happen more quickly. If there really is a need to have action [on smart grid adoption] sooner, what would it take to facilitate that or make it possible? That’s what we will look at in this study,” he concluded.