Editorial: My Friend the Smart Meter

January 03, 2011
January/February 2011
A version of this article appears in the January/February 2011 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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I am an unabashed supporter of smart meters. While testifying about energy efficiency at the European parliament, I logged into my home’s smart meter (in California) and showed them my current energy use. The members of Parliament were so impressed—none of them had ever seen output from a smart meter—that I may have influenced energy efficiency legislation in Europe. I teach a course about energy efficiency at the University of California, Davis, and I make every student log into his or her smart meters and present analyses of their homes’ hourly consumption. The students learn about the differences between energy and power and which appliances use the most electricity in a manner that is both immediate and personal. In November 2010, I convinced my in-laws to replace their 29-year-old refrigerator, because that clunker was the only possible explanation for their home’s high electricity use at 3 am. And after the new unit arrived, they watched on their smart meter as the home’s consumption fell almost 250 watts. That’s 2,000 kWh per year, making for a one-year payback time!

Results of Refrigerator Replacement

Figure 1. The smart meter shows how replacing a 29-year-old refrigerator with a new unit reduced the home’s baseline electricity use 250 watts. The replacement occurred on November 3.

That is why I am distressed at the miserable job that the utilities, regulatory authorities, and governments have done in deploying smart meters into homes and small businesses. A combination of unfortunate technology choices, terrible public relations, timid public policy, and unrealistic expectations has turned a valuable energy information tool into a source of politically divisive controversy, and a social media minefield. It’s difficult to know where to start when listing problems.

The balance of benefits from smart meters overwhelmingly favors the utility. Among other features, smart meters permit time-of-use pricing. This is a sensible idea, and if consumers carefully limit their electricity demand—yet another complex technical concept to understand and manage—they will get lower bills. But without simple in-home devices and controls, a great many customers will enjoy few or no financial benefits, no matter how hard they try to manage demand. Then, to add insult to injury, privacy restrictions won’t even give customers ownership of their consumption data. Right now, some customers can’t even access their data.

I used to be disappointed that utilities had not yet implemented a communications protocol that would allow the smart meters to communicate with devices inside the home. Now I’m thinking this delay has been a blessing in disguise. Some utilities imagined that they could reach through the meter into the home and control the operation of appliances. That’s not going to happen. Instead, I hope that a more-collaborative relationship will emerge—a relationship mediated by prices, rebates, and other financial incentives. The result should be a consumer who is still definitely in control of his or her appliances.

The smart meter is supposed to be a cornerstone of the smart grid, so it’s puzzling that the utilities haven’t prepared their own front and back offices—customer hotlines, web sites, and applications to provide smooth, friendly, helpful support—to make the recipients of smart meters into more-informed and happier customers. From the customer’s perspective, without the smart data, it looks like the only thing behind the smart meter is the same dumb grid, and sometimes an even dumber utility. Google, Microsoft, and others have jumped in to fill the information gap. But this is only a partial solution, because these firms still lack the knowledge of local conditions and actual bills that only a local utility can offer.

Smart meter data are a tremendously valuable diagnostic tool for the energy auditor. Hourly—or even 15-minute—data can help auditors pinpoint energy problems, identify opportunities to save energy, and recommend integrated solutions to energy problems. DOE should help here by developing and standardizing analytical tools to identify unusual electricity patterns. For example, DOE's Home Energy Saver interactive online energy analysis tool could include a module to accept and exploit smart meter data for more-precise and detailed recommendations. Then consumers, auditors, and utilities could apply these tools.

The bottom line is that people will appreciate the value of smart meters when the meters actually provide some value. We need to rebalance the benefits, possibly to the point that customers will then ask for smart meters. Let’s get started.

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