The Federal Communications Commission will play a key role in smart grid reliability, but one co-op expert says this agency that assigns spectrum treats utilities "like the local pizza shop."

"Spectrum is a limited resource," said Kathy Nelson, principal telecommunications engineer for Great River Energy in Maple Grove, Minnesota, and chair of the Utilities Technology Council, a global trade group for critical infrastructure providers. She noted that everyday consumer devices from cellphones to baby monitors to garage door openers rely on spectrum to function. "Demand is increasing and the FCC decides who gets it."

The trouble, Nelson said, is that "the FCC does not understand or appreciate the criticality of our industry." Instead, the commission treats utilities "like the local pizza shop," she said. "We are given no priority for the critical and vital services our members provide."

Electric utilities must compete with a growing multitude of commercial industries for spectrum—radio frequencies for communication over the airwaves—as the energy sector works to develop a smart grid that must have secure data and voice communications, Nelson told the U.S. Energy Association's State of the Energy Industry Forum in Washington on Jan. 18.

The electric power industry has been building its own communications network since the 1960s, yet grid modernization is unachievable without sufficient spectrum, she said.

Nelson encouraged the various energy trade associations at the forum to help get the message to the FCC that utility facilities are critical infrastructure and require adequate spectrum allocations.

Public policy to address spectrum allocations for utilities "is needed now more than ever," she said.

"We need to amplify our voice so the FCC knows what we do," she said. "Without water and electricity, society fails to function, yet the FCC continues to lump us in with everyone."

Read more about Kathy Nelson and how she hopes to encourage more women to pursue engineering careers.