Will Consumers Win With The Smart Grid?

There’s been an awful lot of hubbub about the smart grid lately. The stimulus bill may have allocated $4.5 billion to a dramatic expansion of the modernized, IT-enabled power grid, but it’s already keeping more than a handful of journalists and PR folks employed. One angle that seems to be getting a lot of play is the impact that smart grid technologies will have out at the ‘edge’ of the network — that is, in consumers’ homes.

But how significant is that impact, really? As Greentech Media writes, existing smart energy programs don’t support the idea that utility-led programs save homes whopping amounts of money; in Italy, utility customers save about 1.5 Euros a month, or 18 Euros a year. Hardly a compelling reason for consumers to embrace the smart grid in their own homes. In part, that’s because smart meters don’t guarantee that consumers will be able to fine-tune their energy use.

The Enel program described leaves energy management up to the utility, which is focused on its own supply issues — a point made recently by Subodh Nayar, COO of Powerline Telco, who writes that the utility-led smart grid isn’t intended to fix residential energy issues. “Empowering consumers with actionable intelligence about their power will not be the outcome of the deployment of smart meters,” he says. The post gathered some great comments from Earth2Tech readers, many of whom heartily agreed with the sentiment (if not all of the particulars of his argument).

Still, as the more optimistic reports indicate, enthusiasm for the smart grid has bled into other, more consumer-focused technologies. This week, Earth2Tech also reported that network-enabled “smart appliances” are getting a boost from stimulus-related policy, and EnergyHub joined the ranks of home energy management tools to receive precious venture funds. These kinds of advancements, while not tied directly to the smart grid stimulus that’s dragged them into the spotlight, are likely to have a more direct impact on consumers.

Between the naysayers and the optimists, there are, of course, the facts. Jeff St. John, who covers the smart grid beat for Greentech Media, published a piece looking at the slow, expensive steps that it will take to bring a smart energy home to fruition (see also: The Smart Energy Home).

In the weeks (or, more likely, months) ahead, we’re probably going to see more pushback on politicians and companies who try to tell consumers that smart meter buildouts really are good for them, too.

Question of the week

Will consumer adoption of energy-monitoring dashboards and mobile applications be an important benefit of the smart grid roll out?
Relevant analyst in energy-efficiency
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  1. ^^^The “naysayers” are probably right that smart meters offer little instant gratification for consumers — the benefits are for the long term.^^^ At least one utility (NStar) has worked around this challenge with a pilot project, convincing consumers to adopt smart meters and hand over control of their thermostats by offering other goodies (e.g. solar panels) that are more exciting for the typical customer. It’s a trade off. Other utilities will surely find other innovative ways to strike this kind of balance. Heard of any good ones?

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