There are more signs that the brouhaha over PG&E’s smart meter rollout may do damage to other utilities’ plans for similar deployments. News reports indicate that utilities and regulatory agencies in other states are closely watching the legal tangle devolve in California. Consumer advocacy groups in California are concerned that smart meters are expensive, inaccurate and increase their bills, and only benefit utilities by eliminating meter reading jobs. This clearly demonstrates that they and the consumers they represent see the immediate impacts of the rollout of smart meters – a highly visible and disruptive new technology – as negatives. To them, the smart meter is an unwelcome revolutionary technology with no benefits to average ratepayers. They don’t know about its evolutionary role in the Smart Grid and how it will help ratepayers save money AND the environment.
And why should they? It’s the responsibility of utilities, and maybe the Department of Energy (DOE) as well to educate consumers better about what Smart Grid technologies can do today and in the future. The DOE has developed a series of booklets that explain the benefits of the Smart Grid to various groups, including consumers, but clearly there need to be much more aggressive and coordinated campaigns to enlighten consumers.
Does Joe Ratepayer understand that smart meters enrolled in utility programs will reduce or eliminate the need to build more power plants to address peak electricity load requirements? Does Jane Ratepayer understand that new power plant construction translates into higher electricity bills to recover costs? Could Joe or Jane intuitively understand how a smart meter saves them money and saves the environment too?
Those of us in the business understand that smart meters will save consumers money on their utility bills as the grid evolves to residential Time of Use (TOU) electricity rates and Home Energy Management Systems (HEMS) are deployed. (Note: The Smart Grid Dictionary defines TOU as “A rate structure with different unit prices for electricity use in a 24-hour timeframe, generally to encourage use during periods of lower demand. This price applies to a time-of-use price, rate, or tariff and is a dynamic price scheme typically used with non-dispatchable demand response programs. It is also known as time-of-day pricing.”)
Analogies can help explain the Smart Grid rollout process and the role that smart meters play. For instance, let’s say that I am building a new house with the kitchen of my dreams. I won’t get the benefits of that kitchen’s output until foundations to fixtures are installed.
The smart meter is like my house’s foundation. There’s no home without a foundation. There’s no Smart Grid without smart meters. In building my new home, I understand that there is a start and a finish to the project. I have a blueprint to visualize the goal. I have a project plan to understand the process of achieving that goal.
It is vital for utilities to connect the dots between current smart meter rollout activities and long term Smart Grid objectives. Ratepayers and consumer advocacy groups need equivalent blueprints and project plans to understand the long-term objectives in terms of what it means to their bills and the environment. Outreach via a Consumer Enlightenment Model is absolutely necessary to build and sustain public support of Smart Grid initiatives.