What if they had a Smart Grid and nobody came?

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smartmeter_smart-grid_utility_consumer-awareness.jpgThe Smart Grid is coming, but most people around the country are not aware of what it is or what it means to them. If a key goal of the Smart Grid is ultimately energy conservation, the Grid’s very success will be dependent upon consumer awareness and support.

The Smart Grid will bring exciting improvements to our utility infrastructure such as more reliable power delivery and options for renewable power. The new Grid will provide other benefits including peak load management for utilities and energy storage capabilities. For consumers, this will also mean the installation of a Smart Meter, an improvement on traditional electric meters designed to communicate power usage between the consumer and their utility and enable consumers to reduce their bills by managing consumption, at least in the long run. Stimulus funding will help pay for some of the development, but consumers will still need to cover more than a fair share.

Public utility commissions and regulators may be on board with Smart Grid deployment, but American consumers may not. Not all consumers will be willing to learn about Smart Meters, analyze utility bills, pay for the upgrades or even care. The story will be a particularly hard sell during such a tough economic time. Chances are consumers would be more accepting and possibly even demand updated power systems if they actually knew about the Smart Grid and how it will benefit them. Studies have shown that when consumers are aware of their power usage and spending, they will lower usage somewhere between 10 and 25% — providing savings and reducing their carbon footprint. These are encouraging figures.

Some consumer awareness exists, but it is not widespread. People may have read that Obama recently allocated $3.9 Billion of stimulus funding to “Invest in Smart Grid Technologies and Electric Transmission Infrastructure.” The DOE also published “The Smart Grid: An Introduction” a consumer-friendly publication demystifying the Smart Grid for those who come across it.

Others may have seen ads from GE’s ‘NOW’ campaign that ran during this year’s Super Bowl or seen their flashy microsite PlugIntoTheSmartGrid.com, offering an educational, but somewhat simplified overview of the Grid.

Pilot Projects such as the Smart Grid City in Boulder, CO or Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s (PNNL) GridWise Olympic Peninsula Project are also raising awareness. One challenge for PNNL was convincing consumers to participate. As an incentive, PNNL offered the participants a 10 % discount on their utility bills.

What consumers will need to know?

Most importantly, consumers will need to understand and buy into the cost/benefit case for these upgrades. Once installed, they will need to understand how and why to use Smart Meter data to make better decisions about power usage. Education and coaxing for some will be required to change consumer behavior. Consumers will need to realize that Smart Meters can also help utilities identify and respond to outages, deliver power more efficiently and eliminate the need for someone to come to the house and read the old electric meters.

There are multiple stakeholders in this undertaking (utilities, policy makers, regulators, environmental groups, vendors), however, consistent messaging to the consumer is critical. Similar to need for the uniformity of protocols with grid technology, so too is the importance that consumers are on the same page with what is going on.

It is still unclear what percentage of the public is aware of the Smart Grid. It is clear that consumer awareness will be needed for adoption of the program and supporting the ultimate goal of energy conservation.

[photo credit: Tom Raftery]

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11 Comments

  1. Consumers will become aware of the new Smart Meters in an abrupt manner when they are charged Time of Use (TOU) electricity rates at Peak Demand times. The TOU rates will expose the true cost of Peak generation including photovoltaics. This is a key reason why the utilities are investing billions of dollars in these upgrades. It won’t take long for “Demand Response” to become household jargon for PG&E customers.

    PG&E_SmartMeter_Overview.pdf

  2. Great stuff Sharon – it would be good to see an extension of this post along your line inquiry. Sort of a consumer prep checklist, with a common intro section and a part customizable, say by zip code. aab

  3. Smart meters and energy use data available to users is the first step in developing an objective database to validate assumptions and calculations about energy use in the US. Like the compilations of voting records by politicians in places like California. Good transparent data that can be parsed and analyzed electronically is essential to any new energy management scenarios.

    The real issue, however is not a “smart grid” but a scaleable grid with wires going to the right places and sized realistically for future loads. ie, the massive loads that plug-in hybrids and electric transportation would impose and swamp the current generating capacity and grid system.

    With the exception of a few home solar collectors subsidized by the large number of rate payers who cannot afford those systems or who live in dwellings like apartments large scale alternative energy generation is not reasonable unless the central Northeast grid is extended to places like the Southwest or efficient large scale storage of energy collected is possible. One is Trillions of dollars and the other is also trillions of dollars and un-invented technology or massive investment in construction of old technology like hydroelectric storage.

    Smart grids are very useful, but of trivial impact in switching to a non-carbon energy economy.

  4. Charlene Draine on

    Sharon,

    Thanks for posting this perspective on the smart grid. The title lured me. My analogy is this: the only way out of the city is to go across a bridge that has crumbled and fell into the lake. Alas, a new bridge is being built! Some will venture out of the city using that new bridge. Some will swim across for a while, until it becomes too difficult or their neighbors shame them. Our energy grid is a serious matter. If this technology is built, they will come, eventually.

    When you say that the smart grid’s “very success will be dependent upon consumer awareness and support,” I was briefly alarmed and immediately thought we would need a battalion of educators. Agreeing that we should be aware and engaged in our energy choices, and a smart consumer is the best kind, education is still the consumer’s option. We are so American – we don’t have to, if we don’t want to. If the smart grid is truly “smart,” then I am relying on many automatic features engineered into this technology so that I don’t have to be that smart about using it, and still reduce my energy consumption.

    Isn’t it possible to determine barriers to behavioral change and engineer a remedy to compensate for poor behavior? For example, our energy bills are unintelligible. Along with our new smart grid and the accompanying smart meter, why not print smart bills, written in understandable (newspaper-level) language?

    “Dearest Consumer, our computer has analyzed your energy use this month. It shows that you have a habit of overusing power between 2 and 5 pm, everyday! If you are interested in decreasing your bill for next month by $860, then dial your smart thermostat to 72 degrees. If you are unwilling or unable to make this adjustment, then allow us to do it for you. Simply switch OFF your user control mode and tell us how much you would like to spend next month on your utility bill. Remember, your energy coach is always available, just listen to this 1-800 number.”

    Sometimes we are just too serious; a chuckle just might win one over.

  5. Timothy Utley on

    I have seen these smart meters and been in on presentation for the technology. The idea is fantastic, but I suspect the use will become politicized quickly.

    Let’s think for a moment about the power company. They deliver power. Preciously, all they could do was to bill you for the total power usage. Now, they can monitor your usage every second and bill you incrementally. Worse, they can now bill you separately for the power usage during peak hours. While this might bring power saving, it will, in my opinion, bring a higher bill to the customer due to micro management of the power.

    Then lastly, at least here in Chattanooga, there is an option to have the power company control aspects of your power. That is, they can automatically adjust your thermostat, lets say, to help increase energy savings. Holy smoke, can you imagine sitting at home on a day in mid August when the temp is 105 outside, and the power company decides it’s time for you to save a few kilowathours? Now your sweltering inside and out. I think this is a mistake, but I understand this is where we are headed no matter what I think.

  6. Vince Golubic on

    My impressions from reading stories around the web from various media sources is that there is not necessarily a media problem in getting the message out, but a perception problem by the average consumer.

    Being an engineer I see many stories on the smart grid. However, are any companies that provide such services currently enticing consumers? AT&T?, Google?, Verizon?, Comcast? Not that I’ve seen yet. If we were bombarded with advertisements like I’m bombarded with DirectTV, Dish and Cable ads, we’de see consumers digging in. The fact we don’t leads me to two(2) possible conclusions.

    1) Providers are not quite ready to offer such services (push)

    2) The consumer doesn’t really see the benefits, hence no demand yet (pull)

    What can be done?

    The minute someone comes up with a simple device that connects to existing

    meters, like the iPod was to music, demand will explode. So..who will develop such a device and how will they enable it to connect to millions of existing internet customers?

    That’s the big question I see.

    Vince

  7. John Bodine on

    It should be recognized that we are wrestling with some ambiguity on how to best build out a smart grid. With the emergence of viable renewable energy sources to produce and deliver electricity locally, there is potential to eliminate the huge line losses associated with transporting electricity large distances across the country. This is a new paradigm which is competing with the current infrastructure model of large, expensive centers of electricity production located either near the generating fuel (oil, coal, or gas) or the centers of demand.

    Much of the “smart grid” technology and benefit relates to better managing transmission efficiencies and load/demand balance across the long distance power lines. If local electricity generation and use (at the home or at the plant) develops sufficiently, much of the need for managing the transmission infrastructure will be reduced.

    Another aspect of the future grid that needs to be considered in current redesign efforts is the importance of utilizing the storage capacity of electric vehicles parked in commuter garages to help offset peak demand without having to build new generating utilities. There seems to be consensus now on the inevitability of electric vehicles displacing the internal combustion engine, and there is a concept of tapping the stored battery power in these vehicles while they are parked in appropriately designed parking sites. Owners are paid for metered electricity they provide to the grid, and must pay for recharging their batteries as needed. Real time usage information and pricing as well as the ability to sell locally produced energy back to the grid will be readily embraced by the public once the mechanisms are in place and tested for easy understanding.

    This will take substantial time to be worked through and developed, so I expect adequate time for education of consumers.

  8. Interesting article. I’ve read tons of these type articles and they all seem to sound alike. Not to belittle the writer –it is a great article. Just short on reality –let me explain. When you break down the article the first thing I see is generalized assumptions about smart meters in general. Smart meters come in all types and levels of sophistication. Meaning that some will “eventually” do the things mentioned but other will not. It really depends on the utility and its objectives in deploying smart meters, whether that smart meter is complex enough to do certain things, and whether the infrastructure is there to support it. An additional factor is the deep pockets of the utility — there are a lot of small utilities out there who will forgo the more expensive smart meters for depth of deployment and not so much for services inherited in the device. Part of the problem with consumers is the way we express ourselves on the subject -whether we generalize and apply some truth to all smart meters or we identify the limitations and report them as such. For the public to better understand the smart meter soup mix out there, the industry needs to be more forthcoming as to the realities of the whole and not the realities of the few.

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