The smart grid holds lots of promise.  It will allow money-saving dynamic, or demand-response, pricing of electricity, help utility companies anticipate strains on the electric-delivery system, and accelerate the integration of renewable-energy sources to help quell our insatiable oil-based energy appetite.

But how do we sell the idea to users (consumers) and public utility commissions?In California, where some 10 million smart meters will be installed by 2012, some consumers have complained that the devices are hard to read and inaccurate.   However, many smart-meter installations in California coincided with a rate increase for electricity and an extended heat wave, factors that drove utility bills up for some consumers.  Another setback for smart meters occurred recently in Maryland. The state's public service commission recently rejected Baltimore Gas & Electric's  (BG&E’s) proposed $835 million rollout of 1.36 million smart meters.  While the commission wrote, "Nothing in this Order should be construed as a vote of 'no-confidence' in smart-grid technology's ability ultimately to lower energy bills, improve customer service, and relieve peak-time pressure on the transmission and distribution infrastructure," it also stated, "The proposal asks BGE's ratepayers to take significant financial and technological risks and adapt to categorical changes in rate design, all in exchange for savings that are largely indirect, highly contingent, and a long way off."

The cost of the smart meters themselves, typically about $200 each, is another challenge for utilities. Many consumers are unwilling to pay for them, and public service commissions, might question a utility's plan to have customers foot the bill.  As it presently appears on the horizon, consumers would bear the cost over many years through a small surcharge on monthly utility bills.  While it still hits the energy user, at least that approach would spread out the financial hit for consumers.  Lets’ just be sure the surcharge stops when the device cost has been recouped.  

So are the benefits of the smart meter truly benefits? Absolutely, but this is the message that needs to be communicated. Of paramount significance to confident deployment of smart meter technology across the nation is a campaign to bolster consumer confidence through public commission and consumer outreach.   From the White House to the meter manufacturer, we need to do a better job of communicating smart meter benefits to consumers of electricity.

Paul Orr, Program Manager, NEMA

pau_orr@nema.org


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