A Problem For Smart Meters: People Don't Understand Electricity

The general public has no idea how much they pay for electricity or how to use less, undermining the central premise of smart meters and hindering their adoption.

Smart power meters are, in theory, supposed to help with everything from electric vehicle adoption (low electricity rates encourage people to charge up at specific times) to bringing more renewable energy on the grid (pricing will vary based on when it is available). But smart meter implementation hinges on the idea that consumers actually understand their electricity use. According to a new survey, they don’t.

It’s not news that smart meter customers don’t yet care enough to obsessively track their electricity use—that’s presumably why both Google PowerMeter and are going by the wayside. But a lack of interest isn’t the problem; it’s a lack of understanding.

IBM’s survey of over 10,000 people in 15 countries revealed that 30% of people surveyed don’t know what the term "dollar per kwh" means (or the equivalent in their country), over 60% of people don’t know what a smart grid or smart meter is, and over half don’t know if their utility has a clean energy program. If customers don’t even know how they’re paying for electricity, it’s difficult to use smart meters to save.

And here’s the thing: IBM’s survey found that 61% of people who are familiar with energy technology and pricing have a favorable view of smart metering, while only 43% of people with minimal knowledge view smart grid technologies in a positive light. Once people understand what the technology does, they think highly of it—and once that happens, it becomes more likely that they will pay attention to variable electricity pricing. Because who doesn’t want to save a couple bucks by running the dishwasher at an off-peak hour?

Some utilities have better smart grid education than others. When a smart meter was installed in my building in San Francisco, a PG&E representative knocked on my door to tell me what was going on. The utility also sent me a pamphlet explaining the intricacies of having a smart meter, and a company website provides even more detailed information. Just offering these simple educational tools could help people who don’t know how smart metering works. Communication is key, and without it, utility efforts to roll out millions of smart meters will all be for naught.

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  • RyanOnTheCoast⚽

    Ed, your local utility (which is also mine) is not trying to sneak anything in.  Quite the opposite in fact, they have been very upfront with the whole thing.  Last time I looked, Corix (the company contracted by BC Hydro to do the installs) isn't installing in the middle of the night.  As for your comments about Ms. Schwart's spin, why is it that those of your ilk always say that the ACTUAL facts are spin, or when confronted with REAL science say it's propaganda?  Why is it that the information you choose to believe can never be traced back to a credible source (and by that I mean, something other than a special interest group with a political agenda)?  You all seem to miss something with all the points you bring up.  For instance, you bring up peak billing....what you all miss is that if we ALL shifted to doing our dishes, etc., at 2AM....when would the peak be?  2AM...incase you couldn't figure it out.

  • Ed

    Ms. Schwartz's essay is a good example of how to spin a doubtful conclusion from even more doubtful data. If I were her logic professor, she would earn a failing grade. Smart meters do not by themselves save any energy, but attempt to shift usage patterns of consumers by reporting premium rates at peak usage hours. The dishwasher uses the same amount of electricity at 2 AM as it does at 7PM. Smart meter billing policies attempt to relieve utilities of the need to bring on more generation capability to meet peak demands. Smart meters are all about profits and not about conservation. The "Education" that Ms. Schwartz speaks of is little more than propaganda. My local utility BC Hydro is trying to sneak these things under the radar before they are required to explain how the mesh network is going to be paid for. They realize that if consumers take the time to educate themselves about this technology, they become alarmed. Their "don't worry , be happy" story is generating an increasing wave of scorn, which will eventually sink their ships.