Developing a smart grid would save consumers money and conserve energy. But utility companies are dragging their feet.
Smart people want to save energy: It keeps utility bills down and is good for the planet. A smart grid, which gives feedback to both consumers and electricity producers on how much energy is being used and when it’s most in demand, can help make those energy savings happen. But smart, profit-motivated utility companies don’t all share the goals of smart people. Right now, they have more control over when and how the smart grid will develop, and they’re losing interest in moving forward.
Yesterday, the Obama administration took a stab at renewing focus on smart grid projects by releasing a report on smart grid policy and announcing a few new smart grid initiatives. Back before worrying over the country’s budget deficit was so popular, when stimulus spending was possible, the federal government put $4.5 billion towards smart grid projects. There’s much less money in this new push—just $250 million for projects in rural areas. By calling attention to the advantages of a smart grid, though, and by honing in on consumer education, the administration might be able to put pressure on utility companies to invest in the smart grid, by getting to them through their customers.
Consumers interact with the smart grid mostly through smart meters, which give individual households information about their energy use. In some places, utility companies are racing to install smart meters. Texas, for instance, is one-third of the way towards its goal of installing 6 million meters by 2015. But not all companies are so eager to install them, and in some places, customers have fought against smart meters because of worries about higher bills or radiation levels. One of the administration’s new initiatives is Grid 21, which is supposed to “promote consumer-friendly innovations” and help people access their energy use data.
If the smart grid’s going to develop, getting consumers this information is vital, because right now utility companies are blaming them for the flagging momentum on building a new grid. In a survey released yesterday, utility leaders blamed “lack of customer interest and knowledge” for holding back smart grid projects.
But customers should be demanding smart meters. Any household can benefit from an energy diet by cutting back and saving money on bills. As in any diet, it helps to know how much you’re consuming and which habits are hurting you the most. Smart meters provide this information, and just as you might skip that cookie once you know it’s 200 calories, you might think twice about using your energy-sucking microwave once you know how much money you’ve been wasting on it each month.
Some utility companies—the ones facing the pressure of building new, very expensive plants to keep up with demand—are on board with this thinking, but others see little benefit in helping their customers buy less of their product. In its report, the Obama administration made it clear that it’s not planning on pressing utility companies too hard to adopt any one smart grid policy: The report emphasized that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to this issue. From a consumer’s perspective, though, there is one simple step to take: Demand a smart meter from your utility company or install one yourself.