In recent years, we've seen big changes in the way we watch TV, use phones, read, and listen to music. But how we use electricity hasn't changed much in decades.
What if instead of a monthly bill we had access to more real-time and actionable information about our electricity consumption? What if our appliances, air conditioners, and lights adjusted automatically to use energy more efficiently and save money? If we did this in every home it would help improve the reliability of the grid and save billions of dollars.
The technology is already available to make this happen today. Smart meters, which make it easier to measure real-time household energy consumption, are expected to reach the majority of American homes by 2015. Programmable thermostats and smart appliances—refrigerators, washing machines, and other appliances connected to the Internet and controllable by computer or phone—can give consumers a better ability to decide how and when to use energy at home. There is huge potential to lower costs and reduce energy consumption—studies show that just having access to data about their energy use helps consumers reduce that use by up to 15 percent.
The challenge is that the rules governing electricity distribution were written for last century’s grid. That’s why is giving a $2.65 million grant to the Energy Foundation to support policy reforms that will lead to more intelligent energy use. The effort will focus on three fundamental areas:
  • Smarter electricity rates that encourage consumers to be more efficient, shift their electricity use to times when it’s cheaper and produce their own on-site energy;
  • Access to electricity markets for consumers and other businesses so they can be compensated for cutting energy use at key times;
  • Open data policies that give customers access to their own energy data, which they can use or share with third parties they select, promoting better energy management tools and services.
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These policy reforms, coupled with the new technologies now being deployed on a large scale, can empower consumers to make smarter energy choices, improve real-time management of the electricity grid, and help facilitate more renewable energy, all while lowering overall costs.
We hope this grant will help catalyze change and look forward to seeing progress in the years to come.
Michael Terrell is Senior Policy Counsel for Energy & Sustainability at Google. \n
This month, challenge a neighbor to GOOD's energy smackdown. Find a neighbor with a household of roughly the same square footage and see who can trim their power bill the most. Throughout February, we'll share ideas and resources for shrinking your household carbon footprint, so join the conversation at \n
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I’ve noticed compound after compound that uses the word “smart” to describe things from the deadly (smart bombs) to the handy (smart phone) to the obscure (smart dust). These days, you can search for smart-just-about-anything and find a genuine example. There’s something about calling stuff “smart” that floats our technophiliac boat.

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Other “smart” stuff is harder to categorize and seems less capable of staging a potential Cylon-type uprising. This includes the “smart power” proposed by Hilary Clinton, which she called, “...the full range of tools at our disposal—diplomatic, economic, military, political, legal, and cultural—picking the right tool, or combination of tools, for each situation.” That just sounds like better, more diversified power to me, much like a smart phone is a regular phone with more bells, whistles, and apps.

Smart mobs
are a social-media-driven antidote to the traditional “senseless mob”—smart mobs being more about community and purpose than anger and pitchforks. Then there’s Smart Water, a type of “enhanced water” that seems clever only from a marketing standpoint. Given the variety of older terms with various senses, such as “smart money” and “smart mouth,” it’s no wonder that many terms jump on the trend while muddying the meaning.

The Oxford English Dictionary traces “smart” as meaning “Of a device: capable of some independent and seemingly intelligent action” to 1972 and “smart terminal,” as in a then-cutting-edge computer terminal. That’s also the year the most popular example of the trend debuted: “smart bomb,” for laser-guided bombs that are theoretically more on-target than the dumb varieties. This 1985 use from Time shows the optimism inherent in the term: “In theory, a single such ‘smart’ bomb could scatter enough electronically guided warheads to disable 50 tanks.” The OED has examples of “smart gun” as “a (hypothetical) gun incorporating technology that renders it capable of seemingly intelligent action” going back to 1986. And we continue to look for ever-more efficient and precise weaponry, as shown in a recent piece on “smart weapons,” specifically an obstacle-avoiding one that “...shoots 25 mm exploding ‘smart’ rounds which contain embedded microchips, accurate up to 500 meters.”

For accuracy in the word-watching world, you can't do better than The New York Times On Language columnist Ben Zimmer, who emailed me these thoughts about the trend: “Very often ‘smart’ is modifying something that is seen to be difficult to manage (bombs, mobs, power, growth), so the full form ‘smart X’ takes advantage of that tension to suggest that through smart thinking we can create order out of chaos, or impose rules on an unruly world.”

Our belief in smart thinking is also an example of wishful thinking: There’s something anthropomorphic and techno-messiah-ish about this trend. It’s human nature to want to lie back on the couch eating Cheesy Poofs, while phones, bombs, mobs, and dust do our bidding. We’re lazy creatures, and the only thing we like dodging more than balls in gym class is responsibility everywhere else. The “smart” label reinforces technology-worshipping “there’s an app for that” thinking, fooling us into believing our tools can do anything, if we only make them right.

Even a dummy like me can see that’s not too smart.

Illustration by Will Etling.

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