Predictions about the future of the electric grid could turn out to be “very wrong”, the directors of California’s smart grid programs admitted earlier this month.

“That’s the risk that we’re running; Information technology – which is what the smart grid is leveraging – moves very, very fast,” Lee Krevat, smart grid director at San Diego Gas & Electric, said. “It’s very hard to predict where it’s going.”

The California Public Utilities Commission last year requested plans from the three major Investor Owned Utilities that would map out their smart grid vision to 2020. The CPUC said the roadmaps should focus on energy efficiency and the state’s renewables and greenhouse gas reduction targets, while improving reliability, maintaining safety and enabling the integration of distributed sources of solar and wind onto the grid.

The roadmaps, due to be submitted by July 1, have to include the IOUs’ vision for 2020, a strategy on how to reach this goal, the current baseline deployment and capacity, plans to maintain privacy and security of data shared over digital networks, as well as costs, benefits and metrics.

“The current grid has been operating in much the same way for over 100 years, and as such lacks the flexibility to adapt to new supply resources and increasing consumer demands,” Michael Peevey, the commission’s president, said. “The roadmap will ensure that we have the best available information to create smart grid policies.”

A report last month from the Electric Power Research Institute estimated that the investment needed for full smart grid deployment ranges from $338 billion to $476 billion but could result in benefits between $1.3 trillion and $2 trillion.

During a panel discussion at Greentech Media‘s Networked Grid conference in San Francisco, representatives from Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), Southern California Edison and SDG&E said they welcomed the deadline, but acknowledged that utilities were exposed to the substantial risks of technological uncertainty.

“We really did do our best with cost and benefits,” Krevat said. “But we know that things are going to be different than we’re anticipating.

“Some of the things we have been doing will turn out to be incredibly valuable whether or not our predictions for the future are very wrong or mostly wrong.”

Kevin Dasso, senior director of smart grid at PG&E, said that flexibility and responsiveness would be the key to successful planning. “Who would have envisioned the types of things that we can do with our cellphones even three years ago? We see a lot of parallels with smart grid,” he said.

“We would be kidding ourselves if we were to say we know exactly where we’re going to be with this technology 10 years from now. That’s why we’re making sure we have a flexible plan and one that lays some of the infrastructure that we can adjust as time goes on.”

PG&E had installed 7.8 million smart meters by April this year, with a target of 10 million by 2012. But California’s largest utility has attracted resistance to the installation of smart meters over health concerns and claims that the devices have increased costs for consumers.

“Consumers don’t know much about smart grid,” Dasso said. “It’s a concept that they just don’t understand, so we’re starting at a very base level of education. Most consumers don’t think about their electric utility except perhaps for when the lights go out or when they get their energy bill.”

On July 28, the CPUC addressed many of these concerns in legislation that will require California utilities to secure customer usage data and provide it in a clearly accessible for consumers. Read the full story: Customers Claim Top Priority In California Smart Grid.

The roadmaps would be a useful “education” for the commission, said Chris Villarreal, regulatory analyst at the CPUC. “We want to make sure the lights stay on and that it’s reliable and safe. But we also want to make sure that there are no unreasonable burdens on IOUs and they are playing by the same rules.”

But he warned that risks associated with investment in untested technology should not be a barrier to mass deployment.

“We don’t want to push customers into position where they’ve got a device and two months later it’s inoperable,” said Villarreal. At the same time, we don’t want to keep waiting for some future version or standard. We don’t get anything done in those circumstances.”

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