Smart meters can be positively transformative for consumers to control their use of electricity.  But there are concerns about them that are threatening to slow down deployments in some areas. That has ramifications to Smart Grid plans everywhere. The three categories of concerns about smart meters are:   

  • meter accuracy – smart meters are have been perceived to create falsely high bills 
  • environmental health concerns about radio frequencies (RF) 
  • control – who decides how energy consumption data is used and technology choices

The first two areas of concerns were addressed in my previous blog

The subject of control and smart meters reflects societal challenges about management of systems complexity, privacy, and technology choices.  For example, control is one of the reasons given for why backyard organic gardening is increasing in popularity.  Food production today is complex and far removed from our visibility or control, but we can regain a modicum of both by growing our own food.  Taken to its extreme, we could all be like Mark Zuckerberg and only eat meat from animals we’ve personally killed.   Isn’t it ironic that this act of control is coming from someone whose company makes it so difficult for Facebook users to control their privacy settings?     

An increasingly complex, interdependent, technology-driven and globally interconnected world can leave us wondering what is actually within our control.  Smart meters are a visible part of a very complex electrical system that is invisible to most people.  Utilities created electrical grids that go without notice until they don’t work.  Many consumers don’t know if their electricity comes from clean or dirty sources nor its true costs, all of which can vary over the course of the day.  So when utilities say that smart meters deliver benefits of improved performance, reduced costs, and increased information for consumers, it needs to be offered in the context of the greater Smart Grid vision and objectives.  Without it, consumers can develop suspicions that they aren’t being told everything – and without the complete vision – they are right.

One smart meter concern speculates that these devices are spies on our home activities and result in loss of privacy control within our four walls.  Yes, smart meters gather and transmit energy consumption data to a utility.  Smart or dumb, electric meters measure consumption but don’t distinguish between watts used by a dryer, dishwasher or TV.  A smart or dumb meter measures the amount of electricity being used, not how it is being used, who is using it, or why it is used.  A smart meter simply delivers that data wirelessly or via power line carrier (PLC) back to the utility at a scheduled interval.  There is a significant amount of activity in the USA focused on ensuring that utilities have guidelines about use, storage, and sharing of that information, and strong privacy protections are inherent to these activities.  As long as proper energy data privacy guidelines are enacted (as states like California are doing), consumers maintain control over their data and their privacy.

Utilities are businesses that function as regulated monopolies, and the absence of choice in who provides electricity may translate into a sense of a lack of control for many consumers.  A lack of control contributes to a lack of trust – monopoly status leaves utilities with weak incentives to create relationships with consumers that build trust, although they should focus serious attention on their consumer relationships.  Consumers who do not trust utilities, or feel they have no selection control in service providers may be suspicious of the technology decisions made by utilities.  Therefore, something as visible and disruptive as a smart meter, which is affixed to a dwelling wall triggers controversy that doesn’t exist for selection of pole top or padmount transformers widely deployed throughout the USA. 

And that’s the crux of smart meter concerns – they are visible symbol of a complex, technology-driven system that is not understood by consumers. Smart meters are also disruptive – they portend changes to billing plans, utility relationships, and consumer relationships with electricity. 

That is why it is vitally important for consumers to be educated about the bigger picture of Smart Grid benefits and the strong supporting role played by smart meters. They don’t just offer timely information about energy usage.  They will enable consumers to use new micro generation and storage technologies and leverage these assets with utilities.  Smart meters will help avoid investment in new generation plants and concomitant rate increases.  Smart meters will help us reduce reliance on energy sources that emit CO2. 

When it comes to the electrical grid, the contributions that smart meters play in delivering the full benefits of the Smart Grid are complex and not easily broken down into sound bites.  But knowledge is power, and understanding the real concerns about smart meters will help utilities create and deliver the best communications to secure trust and support for smart meters and the big Smart Grid picture.