Can the Marriage Between Smart Grid and Consumer Be Saved?

It all started with such promise, aided by $3.4 billion in federal stimulus funding for “advanced electricity-grid technology,” but there wasn’t even a honeymoon for some residential customers in Texas and California who saw their newly-installed smart meters result in higher electricity bills.  They reacted with suspicion, hostility and lawsuits, and now utilities regulators in both states have launched reviews. As Katherine Ling of Greenwire reported in The New York Times, a new group also has formed to act as a smart grid marriage counselor by researching consumer concerns and helping them understand smart grid.

“Its Not Me, Its You”

  • Texas —  When Oncor, the largest transmission and distribution system in Texas, started installing smart meters, customers almost immediately began complaining about higher bills.  The initial problems have been traced to mistakes by meter readers and not the meters, but some consumers are not buying it.  Upset Texas consumers launched a website launched dedicated to “fight utility meter abuse” and they filed a lawsuit seeking class action status. The Public Utilities Commission of Texas started an independent review (PDF) of the smart meters and a report is expected in June.
  • California — Last fall Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) also ran into opposition from residents upset with their bills after smart meters were installed.  PG&E said there was nothing wrong with the meters and that the higher bills were due to warmer weather creating more demand for air conditioning.  Nevertheless, PG&E halted its deployment of smart meters after a consumer lawsuit was filed. The California Public Utilities Commission now has selected a consultant to conduct an independent evaluation similar to the Texas review.

We Need to Talk

At the heart of the controversy is a breakdown in communication. Consequently, last month a group of utilities, consumer advocacy groups, consumer electronics and tech companies, and retailers formed the SmartGrid Consumer Collaborative (PDF) to work on building consumer acceptance and use of the smart grid. The SGCC has three priorities:

  • In-depth research on consumer awareness, acceptance, and use of the smart grid with emphasis on their needs, preferences and priorities;
  • Outreach and education to allow consumers to better understand the smart grid, its issues and its potential; and
  • Development of best practices to involve and empower consumers in the roll out of smart grid technologies.

The effort comes not a minute too soon. With nearly $4 billion in federal stimulus money to be spent on smart grid and a forecast that nearly half of all North American consumers will be using smart meters within the next five years, the difference between success and failure will depend on avoiding unrealistic expectations by consumers. Smart grid, particularly the metering part that consumers see, in large part provides the consumer with information to make choices about their energy use.  Turning information from the smart meters into action, rather than a lawsuit or complaint, will require much better education and communication going forward.