My blog dated April 19 focused on PG&E activities that seemed to be designed to kill the spirit and the objectives of the Smart Grid. Since then, PG&E has admitted that mistakes were made in some meter installs (although my PG&E smart meter functions perfectly, thank you very much), the tariff change is wending its way through the regulatory process, and California voters decided the fate of Proposition 16. This proposition was sponsored and funded by PG&E. According to the latest news reports, PG&E spent $46 million on TV, newspaper, and print media ads extolling the virtues – in PG&E’s view – of voter-protected monopoly power. The vote breakdowns make it clear that PG&E lost in its own territory of Northern and Central California. It scored more votes per dollar in territories served by Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas and Electric than in its own backyard. Rumor has it that even PG&E employees hated the measure.
Was this evidence of a smart meter backlash or a simple demonstration of that adage that familiarity breeds contempt? Only detailed surveys will determine that, but it is clear that PG&E needs different advisors in the executive suite and a fresh approach to interacting with customers.
So, community choice is safe in California, and this is excellent Smart Grid news for two reasons – but there’s a real warning in the poll results too. (Community choice lets cities, counties, or neighborhood entities purchase and/or generate electricity for residential and business use within their boundaries. Community choice means local control over energy resources, more renewable sources of energy, plus a lower overall cost of electricity.)
First the good news. Community choice should accelerate the integration of sources of renewable energy into the grid. As the environmental devastation grows from oil spills (even on land – see the Red Butte Creek spill in Utah), it is becoming apparent to even the most oblivious that this is one fossil fuel that we would be well-served to render obsolete. For instance, communities can band together to create solar gardens and aggressively convert rooftops to solar power to generate local clean and renewable power for their electric vehicles.
A second benefit is that distributed generation improves our grid security. Complete reliance on centralized energy generation puts all eggs in one basket. If you believe the reports about hackers infiltrating the computer networks that control the electrical grid, or even if you only believe a fraction of them, there’s serious reason to be alarmed and deploy solutions that improve the stability and reliability of the electrical grid. A grid studded with microgrids and CCA-controlled energy sources is a smarter grid, less likely to be completely disabled and able to recover faster from natural disasters or acts of criminality and terrorism.
However, there is a real worry in the Proposition 16 results. It is clear that PG&E customers don’t trust PG&E. This does not bode well for future PG&E efforts to educate their customers about TOU (Time of Use) rates and other measures to reduce electricity needs at peak time periods to save money and reduce carbon emissions. Enlightening consumers about their energy use and encouraging participation in smart energy programs is a process of complex messaging, and it requires a relationship of trust. PG&E doesn’t have that now, and the big question is – can they earn consumer trust to be effective in their future Smart Grid solution rollouts? If they fail in that endeavor, we all lose.