Smart Meters: Truly a Cure for Energy Blindness?

And now for a dose of reality.

No doubt smart meters are a good thing, but even their most ardent fans must admit that a degree of hoopla surrounds these little digital boxes. We hear that if consumers can just see how much power they use in real time, and what it costs, our energy woes will be no more.

Smart meters will even cure the blind. The energy blind that is.

“It can be difficult to separate the hype from legitimate claims,” said the American Council for an Energy- Efficient Economy in a new report that evaluates what works – and what doesn’t – when it comes to smart meters.

ACEEE points out that we no longer load the stove with coal and wood for our primary energy. Instead, gas and electricity flow unseen to take care of our needs. Since we see only a monthly bill, we have no idea what energy costs in real time, how much we use, or even the acceptable social norm for energy consumption.

Thus, most people in the US are “among the energy blind,” says the report. Asking us to save energy based on our monthly bills alone is like asking a dieter to lose weight without a scale. “Perhaps it can be done, but the task is a lot more difficult,” the report says.

But seeing how much energy we use is one thing; acting on it another. Smart meters will not do their job if we rely on the technology alone. The consumer needs good reason to act, according to ACEEE.

These findings are important because the US and other nations are making a huge investment in smart grid technology. Smart meters represented only about 4.7% of US household meters in 2008. But their market share is expected to grow to 40% over the next five to seven years, according to the report.

The report looked at 57 studies, three decades of research in Europe, North America, Australia and Japan, and found that smart meters can be effective. In fact, households using them have reduced electricity use 4% to 12%.

But much depends on how the meters present information and feedback and how we respond. Ultimately, the smartness of smart meters relies on utilities understanding human psychology.

The report offers several interesting insights about our energy behaviour. For example:

  • We are less apt to respond to programs that focus on reducing energy at specific times (peak periods when costs are high) than reducing energy all the time.
  • We need to feel our actions truly make a difference.
  • An energy crisis is more likely to motivate us to conserve than arguments about climate change, especially if we live in the US.
  • Smart meters may be unnecessary. We like our cell phones, and if only 20% of US consumers used them to manage household energy use, we could significantly reduce energy waste.
  • We need feedback on a long-term basis to continue to save energy.
  • When we receive feedback on energy use, we tend to change our habits and make small changes like installing weather stripping. To a lesser degree, we replace appliances, although they offer the most energy savings.
  • There has been a lot of talk about how smart grid will marry two giant industries: energy and information technology. True. But the ACEEE study makes apparent that a third field needs to play a big role: behavioural science.

    “The bottom line here is very simple: Smart meters in and of themselves are just not ‘smart’ enough to get the job done for consumers and our economy. While advanced metering provides a useful tool to save energy, cut consumer electric bills and reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, utilities need to use these advanced meters to provide consumers with information on their consumption in ways that grab consumers attention and encourage them to take action,” said John “Skip” Laitner, ACEEE’s director of economic and social analysis.

    The report can be found here.

    Elisa Wood is a long-time energy writer whose work appears in many of the industry’s top magazines and newsletters. She is publisher of the Energy Efficiency Markets podcast and newsletter.

    photo: Tom Raftery

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    7 comments on “Smart Meters: Truly a Cure for Energy Blindness?

    utility brands who build behavioural science insight into their comms will benefit most from smart meters #cleantech

    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

    Good writeup. None of the research I’ve come across shows any definitive data that feeding information to the end user results in widespread behavior change (if that was the case, all the food labeling and calory info would have lowered the American waistline a long time ago).

    More on this:

    Kat Shoa

    Diane Barney

    While I too agree that it is a good write-up, we need to keep in mind possible unintended consequences if we stridently put in front of the consumer cost data. The most likely to respond are people who are home all day and very concerned about cost. The category that fits this profile are the elderly who are on a fixed income. These are the people most likely to respond and turn their air conditioners and fans off at the time of peak, peak being generally at the hottest point of the day. The elderly are also the most likely to die from the heat impacts. We need to be very careful about public health impacts when the message is packaged.

    Smart meters need to get a lot smarter to truly educate consumers as to how their usage compares to others and where they need to focus their energy saving efforts. Smart meter readings combined with square footage, HDD, and number of occupants can give a resultant number to compare how one stacks up against the Joneses energy consumption. But just as it’s difficult to look at one’s monthly grocery bill to determine where to save, smart meters only provide answers to the most savvy energy consumer. Only after determining just how much an appliance is contributing to the total bill and how those sub-loads compare on a scale of high-efficiency-to-high-waste will a consumer be able to make educated decisions about their energy use, whether it’s buying a new appliance or changing behavior. Feedback devices like The Energy Detective and Envi are making a first run at this approach. All major appliances should have a Zigbee energy logger incorporated in them to provide feedback to an energy usage display. Google’s Powermeter is an interesting first effort at providing feedback, but it doesn’t provide adequate detail or a detailed report. We’re moving in the right direction, but more can be done in providing easily understood real-time detailed energy consumption patterns to consumers to make it easy for them to make wise energy choices.

    Bill Bass

    So far all discussion I’ve read regarding smart meters is centered around demand side behavior. I am not an expert on the technology but assume smart meters will give suppliers centralized control of each consumer. For now, most of the U. S. has 24/7 readily available power that becomes only moderately more expensive during peak load demand. So, consumption choices are still left up to each consumer. Will we ever see a day where consumers are assigned to a category and allocated “x” KW with the smart meter helping budget the load to make it through the month?

    Intelligence built into these meters are fine and there are a few advantages meaning the remote access via wireless interface and the frequency in times the meter will read the power delivered.

    But what really needs to be implemented to reward energy conscience residential consumers is to add the feature that already exist in Demand Meters!

    Current Smart Meters only read kWh… Demand Meters read kVA which actually reads how much current is being drawn from the load! By implementing this feature consumers are rewarded with a reduced energy bill by using more energy efficient appliances and power factor correction which cleans up the power delivered. For those that may not know if the is a lead or lag between the voltage and current there is wasted power. Most homes run at about .77 PFC if homes increase the power factor to .98 and use more energy efficient appliances they can start to see a saving on their bill.

    It’s simple Ohms Law Voltage times Current equals Power; reduce the Current with efficiency and reduce the Power! Now couple that with a meter that reads more frequently and you have a system that rewards the energy conscience consumer!

    Frank Eory

    For many people here in the desert southwest, a smart meter does little to reduce demand. When it’s over 110 degrees outside, there is little one can do to reduce A/C demand if you have people at home during the day — mothers with young children, retirees, etc.

    But a programmable thermostat helps a lot for those whose homes are empty during the day, for whom the indoor temperature can be allowed to rise above 80 until the work day is over.

    And despite what the studies say about people being less likely to respond to programs that encourage off-peak usage, everyone I know here takes advantage of the program offered by our local electric company. Doing dishes and laundry at night, running pool filters at night, etc. not only is more green and makes people feel good about their behavior, but it also saves substantial amounts of money on what is already an insanely high monthly electric bill in the summer months.

    Appliance replacement, active and passive solar and evaporative cooling have so much more impact than smart meters in a climate like this.

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