Why the Smart Meter Backlash Story Isn't Going Away  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

Earth2tech has a look at some of the reasons why there has been significant resistance to smart meter rollouts - Why the Smart Meter Backlash Story Isn’t Going Away.

This story seriously won’t go away. And here’s why:

1. People don’t like PG&E. PG&E has a long and contentious relationship with California residents. The utility previously backed the losing Prop 16, which would have basically stopped local governments from getting into the power business. There was that whole gas line fire disaster in San Bruno in September, and the utility took months to initially respond with an apology for the first smart meter complaints that emerged. PG&E couldn’t have done a worse job at outreach to date. Basically anything PG&E does at this point is going to be looked at with a skeptical eye. Bummer.

2. Hard times. As the sergeant put it to the New York Times, budgets are tight everywhere right now and anything that’s giving the impression of unfairly costing consumers money is going to face anger, and apparently, a lot of it. This might not happen to such a large extent if wallets weren’t so tight.

3. Technology is confusing: People generally don’t understand how smart meters work. If you have a Wi-Fi router in your home, a cell phone in your pocket, and a GPS device in your car, yet you’re worried about health concerns of your smart meter, then you don’t understand smart meter technology.

4. Digital, networked technology can be scary. As I’ve written at length, adding a network connection and software to a device has, throughout history, tended to make people nervous. Whether it’s a backlash to computerized voting, or online and mobile banking, the digitization of the power grid will face the same uncertainty.

5. It’s getting hot in here. NASA reported that January through September were the hottest on record. The hotter it is, the more air conditioning people use in their homes, and the more they spend on their monthly utility bills. So as the first wave of smart meters is being installed (partly to help fight climate change), the climate has delivered record hot temperatures that are likely boosting a lot of bills.

6. Little innovation, little change. The power industry has seen little innovation over the past century, which is why greentech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are so eager to build companies in this industry. As a result, utility consumers are used to a routine, never-changing relationship with the utility, and aren’t used to any type of change, period.

7. What do I get? Compare a smart meter installation to the installation of your new cable connection. Working with the cable company is really annoying; they seem to take forever; their customer service lines are abysmal; yet at the end of the irritating journey, you have an Internet connection that brings you all your favorite web content. After you get your smart meter, what do you get? Oh, the ability to cut down on your energy consumption. Not so fun.

The New York Times has an article on some examples of the backlash - ‘Smart’ Meters Draw Complaints of Inaccuracy.
Over the last year, as utilities around the country have installed an estimated two million of the new digital meters, power companies have received plenty of complaints — and in some states have been hit by class-action lawsuits — most of them from consumers saying the smart meters are overstating their electrical usage.

This is not the smooth rollout envisioned last year, when the Obama administration included money for utilities to install smart meters as part of a $3.4 billion injection of federal stimulus spending to modernize the nation’s power grid. By 2020, there could be as many as 65 million smart meters, by various makers, installed in this country, according to one estimate.

Using digital technology and computer networking, smart meters can transmit real-time data that is supposed to enable utilities to conserve electricity and better allocate power during parts of the day when overall demand is high. Utilities can also then vary the price for power, by time of day or time of year, based on when it is being used; some are already offering this option to customers.

Meanwhile, for customers with the right training and additional equipment, the meters can give households a much more detailed picture of the amount of electricity they are using, down to individual appliances. That, in theory, can help people reduce their electric bills and become greener citizens.

But because of faulty technology in some cases, and more often through general shortcomings in consumer education and customer-service support by many utilities, smart meters are leaving many customers dumbfounded.

In Maryland earlier this year, state regulators, aware of the discontent around the country, temporarily blocked a utility’s smart-meter proposal, citing inadequate planning and the potential cost to consumers.

In California, Michael Kelly, a lawyer handling a class-action suit against the state’s dominant utility, Pacific Gas and Electric, over billing disputes, said the problems probably had less to do with faulty devices and more to do with a hasty rollout. Old billing systems were merged with the new smart-meter technology, he said, too frequently resulting in erroneous charges.

“We’re just saying we want an evaluation done and that we want anyone who was overcharged to get their money back,” Mr. Kelly said.

A state-ordered analysis by the independent research firm Structure Consulting Group, released in September, agreed with the utility’s assertion that its new meters were accurate for the most part. The study also supported its conclusion that most of the complaints could be traced to a heat wave, changes in personal behavior or old meters that were actually malfunctioning and undercharging before the new ones were installed.

But the Structure report also said the utility had done a poor job of educating consumers and addressing their concerns. In basic terms, the smart digital meters are simply replacing the old analog meters, with their inscrutable dials and counters, found on the sides of homes all over America. But unlike those “dumb” devices, which are often read once a month by utility employees going house to house on foot, the digital meters can provide utilities with remote, real-time measurements of kilowatt-hours being used.

A recent analysis by the nonprofit Electric Power Research Institute, a utility-financed research organization based in Palo Alto, Calif., estimated that creating an intelligent electricity grid of this sort in the United States could reduce electricity use by more than 4 percent annually by 2030. Nationally, that could mean annual savings of roughly $20.4 billion for utilities and their customers, according to the institute.

Grist has some commentary on the Earth2Tech and New York Times articles - Understanding the smart meter backlash.
David's been writing lately about the intersection of technology and human habits and culture, arguing that energy is a behavioral challenge as much as a technological one. There's a prime of example of how these things collide -- and why climate hawks should pay attention -- in the backlash against smart meters in California.

The New York Times is the latest to cover the trend of residents responding in outrage when utilities install smart meters -- home-energy computers that provide detailed information on what appliances you're using, and when. They're a necessary element in building a clean-energy grid that relies on wind and solar power, feeds electric cars, and supports greener dishwashers and other appliances (here's a good backgrounder).

California utility PG&E has been a national leader in rolling out the devices. It's also faced the strongest revolt. ...

Behavioral researcher Doug McKenzie-Mohr suggests there's no silver bullet to getting people to adopt new sustainable behaviors. It requires patience, careful communication, carefully designed pilot programs, and research into what mental associations new concepts may trigger (that's why we get home-energy "reviews" or "check-ups" instead of "audits").

Mailing out brochures isn't going to put everyone's concerns to rest, because their worries are less about information than about adjusting to change.

There's reason to think that privacy fears about the smart grid aren't going to be "solved" any quicker than the question of internet privacy will be resolved (the grid is often called the internet for energy). The question will persist, just as the question of internet privacy has.

Fehrenbacher's whole story at Earth2Tech, "Why the Smart Meter Backlash Story Isn't Going Away," runs through a list of ominous reasons why the dilemma will stick around. It's worth reading.

There are two ways to think about the PR challenge of smart meter going forward, one cheery and one gloomy. Global warming speech-givers are fond of saying that our choice is not between sustainability and the status quo; it's between sustainability and Detroit/Mogadishu/Pakistani floods (pick your social-collapse metaphor). In the same vein, Duke Energy CEO Jim Rogers says our choice is between a wired clean-energy network and utility rates that will rise 20 to 40 percent in the coming decades to replace aging power plants. The status quo isn't an option -- that's the gloomy conclusion.

For the other perspective, I'm cribbing from David's recent post comparing China's massive top-down energy planning and a decentralized American alternative:
Among other infantilizing features of modern American life is the fact that we are passive, thoughtless consumers of energy, forever suckling at a far-away teat, whether it's foreign oil producers or politically connected corporate behemoths. We send money out of our communities; someone sends power in. We are as dependent as sheep.

One step toward regaining our sense of civic engagement and self-determination would be to widely distribute the means of making and managing energy, to empower bottom-up rather than top-down innovation. Our communities can never truly govern themselves if they have no control over their own power. Let China have the Three Gorges Dam. Let's show the world, again, that democracy can work.

Smart meters can help Americans become not just consumers but energy managers and producers (through, say, rooftop solar panels). If you buy this perspective, adding info-tech to your home's energy system isn't disempowering at all. It's an expression of democracy. That's a bit more hopeful.

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