(A Lack of) Awareness of the Smart Grid – A Problem that Needs Addressing

Although smart metering deployments continue apace, there is still a fundamental lack of awareness surrounding the smart grid among the general populace. Earlier this month, the Institute for Electric Efficiency reported that around 1 in 3 US households now have a smart meter, yet a survey commissioned by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) found that the majority of respondents were unfamiliar with the concept of the smart grid. Admittedly, the CEA’s research was conducted a year ago when smart meters were less commonplace than they are now, but there is consensus among industry participants that a lack of awareness is a problem that needs addressing.

Concerns that the smart grid will threaten civil liberties and endanger health are two issues that stem from a lack of education. However, another, more recent survey has revealed that utilities feel that they have either too little or no budget to effectively roll out an AMI customer education campaign. Because of this, there is likely to be a continued backlash against the deployment of smart meters in places such as California where residents erected “Stop Smart Meters” signs and stopped trucks from delivering meters being installed by PG&E. Others, who see the RF signals that are used by smart meters as a health threat, will continue to opt out of having a smart meter fitted. In Australia, where the Victorian government has mandated that smart meters be rolled out across the state, almost 90,000 of the 900,000 or so households that have, so far, been approached by installers have refused to have a smart meter fitted.

Although none of this will dramatically affect rollout plans or efforts to upgrade T&D infrastructure, it does mean that utilities will need to think aboutoffering alternatives to those not wishing to receive a smart meter and this is undoubtedly a hindrance they could do without. Customers of Central Maine Power (CMP), for example, can choose between non-RF-emitting smart meters or elect to retain their existing electromechanical meter. However, this choice does not come without financial consequences as CMP has introduced additional pricing tiers to mitigate the cost of opt-outs (which arise from having to hire someone to physically read and maintain the meter). As such, customers who opt for the non-emitting smart meter are charged a one-off fee of $20, plus a recurring monthly fee of $10.50, while those who choose to retain their electromechanical meter must pay a one-time charge of $40, in addition to a monthly fee of $12.50.

But why would a customer be happy to pay these additional charges just because they refused to have a smart meter installed? It’s a valid question that is unlikely to go away unless efforts to educate the consumer about the smart grid are stepped up. Surely most people’s concerns regarding the safety of smart meters could be assuaged if they were made aware that they possess a signal intensity some 5,000 times less than a mobile phone – a device that is almost ubiquitous. Likewise, would many of the people that have opted out of having a smart meter fitted have done so if they had been informed how their energy usage data would be used? Yet another survey, this time carried out by AT&T, revealed that 39% of consumers believe that the smart grid will diminish their privacy. However, the same survey also revealed that 85% of respondents do not have information regarding the benefits of smart meters and, crucially, have more trust in utilities and telecoms than they do in the federal government and ISPs to safeguard their data.

On factor that could help raise awareness of the smart grid and its benefits is the entrance into the home energy management systems space by a variety of telcos, cable operators and security companies. The likes of Verizon, Comcast and ADT with their vast marketing budgets now offer subscription home automation services that give customers greater insight into their energy consumption. As interest in these packages increases, so too should the level of awareness of related markets, such as the smart grid. The “managed” segment of the home automation market (of which the aforementioned companies are a part) is expected to exhibit strong growth in the next few years as this technology increasingly makes its way into the homes of the masses. Another step toward generating increased awareness would be for utilities to establish a presence in retail environments.When Best Buy launched home energy zones in three of its stores where customers were able to view a plethora of home energy gadgets last year, utilities were on hand to dispense information on rate plans and rebates available to customers. Similar initiatives could and should be encouraged in regions where smart meters are being deployed. Instead of providing information regarding rate plans, however, utilities could be on hand to answer consumers’ questions regarding the smart grid, alleviate fears, and correct any misconceptions.

ABI’s recently published report on the smart grid provides a thorough overview of the challenges and opportunities facing industry participants.