Spotlight Interview: James Kohlhaas at SAIC Talks About Smart Grid

May 08, 2012 05:47 PM EST By: Laura Benold

James Kohlhaas, Vice President in the Energy, Environment, and Infrastructure Business Unit at Science Applications Interantional Corporation (SAIC), sat down with us for a conversation about the smart grid and why he is participating in the Utility Technology Challenge at TechConnect World.

Q: How would you define “smart grid”?
A: “I would divide it into three chunks. The first element is the physical thing, and I like tot hink of it as something that is self aware, self-healing and self-controlling. I view that as the capabilities that the modern grid has. It’s definitely an intelligent system that can sense and respond to a variety of actions.
For the utility it holds the hope of better operational efficiency while providing a level of security that doesn’t exist today. For the consumer, it hopefully provides better power quality and puts the consumer in a mode where they can be active instead of passive and control their own destiny. Better reliability for the consumer and lower cost.”

Q: What are the biggest challenges facing development of the smart grid?
A: “The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided some important grant money to get the ball rolling, but from this point on we’re looking at projects that have to generate an acceptable return on investment. Money is tight and investors want to have a good risk position when they invest, so my biggest concern is whether the projects can be put in a light where there is a measurable return on investment. The big challenge will be putting together good business cases that have reasonable pay and reasonable risk positions to justify moving forward. That said, the grid is really old. Ultimately, there is a lot of end of life equipment. The evolution of the smart grid might be driven by replacing old equipment with smarter equipment; the fact that the grid is old will drive as much of the development as is ROI.”

Q: What solutions would significantly impact your work on the smart grid?
A: “Our work as a company has been focused on providing good consulting advice on how to develop those cases to get good ROI for making investments in smart grid. As a company, we focus on offering smart grid as a service. That way, when you move into municipal and coop markets, a smart grid as a service offering allows those groups to buy smart grid in a bite sized chunk with a monthly payment fee and allows them to deploy what they otherwise couldn’t.
A footnote, something I’ve seen pop up, is that because of the low price of natural gas, we’re seeing rapid growth in the micro-grid market. That will have an unknowable impact on smart grid development. What you might end up with is series of micro-grids that use smart grid tech but on a much smaller scale.”

Q: Why are you participating at TechConnect World?
A: “I’ve been to the event before, and I thought it was awesome. SAIC’s fastest growing businesses are in healthcare and commercial energy, so this event is the one place I can go to get a sample of our fastest growing markets in combination. The undercurrent of nano is also important to me, so this conference is a one-stop shop.”


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