Smart Grid ending before it starts?

By Meg Beasley
Federal News Radio

The smart grid and smart meters may be smart ways to save money and energy, but utility companies are finding that the technology alone might not be enough to gain consumer support.

The missing link? Communication.

“The smart grid is one of the most promising ways of remodeling the grid… but consumers seem to have been left out of the equation as utilities install the meters,” said Lisa Margonelli, the director of the Energy Policy Initiative at the New America Foundation, which held a discussion about the topic recently.

Margonelli said the goal of the panel was to facilitate dialog among representatives from utility companies, regulatory agencies, consumer groups and federal agencies.

“We’re hoping to discuss the role of the consumer and how utilities and the fed government can all communicate with consumers and bring them into the mix and help them get benefits as quickly as possible,” she said.

Panelists agreed that Smart Grid is at a critical juncture in its implementation but for different reasons.

For example, David Owen, the executive vice president of Edison Electric Institute said it is a “game changing technology” because implementation of the smart grid “will enable so many other breakthrough technologies.”

Robert Leiberman, principal of the Regulatory Assistance Project said the juncture was crucial because smart grid is just as much about a new business model as new technology and “it is not clear we as a society really want to go there.”

Utility companies have faced resistance across the country.

In May, Fairfax, California, passed a law banning further installation of smart meters, raising concerns about health risks, job loss and energy rate hikes.

Last month the Maryland Public Service Commission denied Baltimore Gas and Electric Company authorization to deploy smart meters and other smart grid technologies, citing financial risks to consumers.

Currently, about 7.5 million households have smart meters, five percent of the nation’s 150 million households. Analysts expect that to grow by 60 to 80 million households in the next five to seven years. Yet, according to Margonelli, 75 percent of consumers don’t know what smart meters are.

Margonelli says there needs to be a joint educational effort on the part of the federal government and the utilities. “Consumers don’t just need to like it, they need to love it and embrace it and enter into a partnership with their utilities to change their behavior,” she said.

Meg Beasley is an intern at Federal News Radio.

Learn more about the smart grid with the Federal News Radio special report, Smart Grid, Smart Future.