We’re by now familiar with the notion that smart meters are critical components of smart grids, the digital networks many utilities are developing to tightly monitor electricity usage, route power more precisely to meet demand, and incorporate renewable-energy sources into the delivery system. We’re also becoming familiar with some of the bumps on the road to smart-meter deployment.
One of those bumps is customer dissatisfaction with the performance of smart meters – dissatisfaction grounded, in many cases, in suspicion that the meters are not fairly or accurately measuring usage. A recent New York Times story, for example, highlights the atmosphere of “open revolt” among consumers whose homes have been subject to Pacific Gas & Electric’s SmartMeter rollout in Northern and Central Caifornia. One of their principal complaints, aired in October at public hearings led by state Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez, is that the new meters are clocking more kilowatts, at higher rates, than customers believe they’re using. Some customers complained that, even though their usage in 2009 had dropped below comparable periods in 2008, they still were receiving higher utility bills.
PG&E blamed the higher bills on the especially hot summer, and noted that the company has been applying rates approved by the California Public Utilities Commission. The rates have included increases intended in part to help pay for smart meter installations for both electric and gas usage. By the end of October, about 1.7 million PG&E customers had received SmartMeters for electric service, while 2.3 million had received them for gas service. The utility is expected to spend $2.2 billion on installations overall.
Florez and other officials imposed on the CPUC to have the meters audited by an independent firm that will use historical and other data to determine their accuracy.
Customer irritation with smart meters – which also has authorities in Connecticut and Texas scrutinizing their performance – is likely going to be only the first of many wrinkles in the development of smart-grid infrastructure. But the growth of smart-grid networks also seems inexorable as utilities both in the U.S. and elsewhere seek ways to reduce their operating costs, pinpoint usage patterns, manage pricing, and fine tune delivery. This month in the U.K., the government announced that every household will have a smart meter by 2020.
Other utility-based energy efficiency programs also will be put into play more widely, although they’re unlikely to achieve the ubiquity of the smart meter. We’ve noted in previous posts the possibilities and difficulties inherent in trying to reduce energy consumption with the help of in-home energy monitoring gadgets and consumer-oriented software. It’s a bit early to judge the effectiveness of those offerings, although the use of the OPOWER Home Energy Reporting System, which is designed to tell utility customers how their rates of energy use rank relative to those of other homeowners in their service area, seems to be producing positive results. The operative elements behind the OPOWER service: peer pressure and the desire for social approval.