By Joel B. Eisen
This Article examines the “Smart Grid,” a set of concepts, technologies, and operating practices that may transform America’s electric grid as much as the Internet has done, redefining every aspect of electricity generation, distribution, and use. While the Smart Grid’s promise is great, this Article examines numerous key barriers to its development, including early stage resistance, a lack of incentives for consumers, and the adverse impacts of the federal-state tension in energy regulation. Overcoming these barriers requires both new technologies and transformative regulatory change, beginning with the development of a foundation of interoperability standards (rules of the road governing interactions on the Smart Grid) that will influence development for many years. This Article describes the federally coordinated standard-setting process started in the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act, leading to a collaborative dialogue among hundreds of participants, with leadership from the National Institute of Standards and Technology (“NIST”). After setting forth the need for interoperability standards and elaborating on the standard-setting process, the Article focuses on a 2011 order by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (“FERC”) that declined to adopt an initial group of standards. While this may appear a step backward, the Article argues to the contrary, finding that FERC’s order supports the flexibility of the Smart Grid Interoperability Panel, the NIST-led process that will produce interoperability standards critical to a wide range of energy saving technologies. FERC’s order allows this process, not a regulator’s imprimatur, to give standards credibility. By holding off on forcing adoption of the standards, but preserving the potential for more significant federal intervention later, it may lead to state adoption of the resulting standards. In this adaptive approach to energy law federalism, neither top-down federal regulation nor private sector standard setting is the exclusive means of overseeing Smart Grid development. FERC’s approach may promote a more positive federal-state relationship in the development of the Smart Grid, and may even portend a more collaborative relationship in energy law federalism generally, avoiding the disruptive jurisdictional clashes that have marked recent attempts to innovate in the electric grid.
Cite as: Joel B. Eisen, Smart Regulation and Federalism for the Smart Grid, 37 Harv. Envtl. L. Rev. 1 (2013).