Making Smart Meters the Must-Have Gadget of the Year

The Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative‘s (SGCC) launch at DistribuTECH this week marked a significant milestone in the industry’s battle to win over consumers, many of whom are none too happy with their smart meters.

The group’s priorities, in particular, suggest some real desire to do better: consumer research, outreach and the deployment of smart grid tech in a way that involves consumers. According to Jesse Berst, the acting executive director and managing director of GlobalSmartEnergy, SGCC is hitting the ground running with a study due out in April and a “public service” marketing campaign to follow thereafter.

The plan is certainly earnest in its efforts, but to be completely honest, it’s also a bit boring.

According to a recent Harris Interactive poll, 68 percent of Americans haven’t even heard of the smart grid. The only way the SGCC and its members will spark genuine enthusiasm from a disinterested populace and win over the hearts (and wallets) of consumers is to approach its mission with the same ferocity as smart meter opponents and doomsayers.  It’s not to say that SGCC has to go on the offensive, but it does have to imbue its outreach with the same passion as a company launching a big, market-changing product in this day and age. In short, the SGCC should take a page from Apple’s playbook.

AT&T’s wobbly wireless network didn’t prevent millions from picking up an iPhone and participating in a market-leading apps marketplace. Why? Because despite the underlying network’s foibles, Apple embarked on a campaign that revolved around a device whose capabilities and expandability (via apps) added up to an offering that impact consumers’ lives. Take, for instance, the latest iPhone commercial, “Family Travel.” In it, the mom turns off the lights remotely with the Schlage LINK app, helping her family shave a couple dollars off the electric bill as they embark on a vacation. It’s a compelling, if unintended, glimpse of the cool things the smart grid has in store for consumers. Who wouldn’t want that?

Of course, the smart grid is much more complex than a gadget, but the reasoning still holds. Without a sense of how the smart grid and an ecosystem of devices, apps and services help consumers save money on electricity, the whole concept remains an abstraction. The challenge therefore is not merely to prepare consumers for the smart grid’s arrival, but to make the wait unbearable.

It’s possible if SGCC starts thinking in terms of appealing to the public not just educating them. Make them want what they can’t have (yet). It’s time to build anticipation among the general population for innovative devices like Tendril’s Vision, instead of only letting gadget blog readers and CES attendees in on the secret. It wouldn’t hurt to start emphasizing the smart grid’s “premium” attributes — like Verizon’s FiOS does for broadband or Sprint’s 4G network does for wireless — making the concept relatable and giving it a dimension beyond an obscure, behind-the-scenes effort to upgrade the electrical grid.

Fortunately, SGCC comes out of the gate with a founding-members roster that reads like a mini “who’s who” of smart grid players; heavyweights like GE and IBM are joined by startups like Silver Spring Networks and Ember as well as consumer-facing veterans like Best Buy and Control4. Not only do all of these organizations have a huge stake in improving the visibility — and the reputation — of the industry, many of them — particularly Best Buy, Control4 and GE’s appliances division — have significant expertise in marketing to consumers. Hopefully, they put that expertise to work.

Question of the week

Can the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative make the smart grid sexy? Can anyone?
Relevant analyst in smart grids
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  1. “Without a sense of how the smart grid and an ecosystem of devices, apps and services help consumers save money on electricity, the whole concept remains an abstraction.”
    I couldn’t agree with you more.
    Time-of-Use rates and peak pricing programs may force smart grid gadgetry on consumers, but as long electricity remains relatively cheap I don’t expect consumers to be clamouring for home energy management devices anytime soon.
    There will certainly be a growing body of Prius-minded consumers that take an interest in the smart grid and the range of associated devices and services. However, any device or service that falls short of ‘automating the savings’ or fails to make our lives much simpler is likely to face a prolonged adoption curve.
    The iPhone app you referenced is great example of a device/app that consumers could get very excited about. Unfortuately, you will not be able to manage your lights from your phone for a couple of bucks paid to iTunes. That said, iPhone app is really about home automation, which has traditionally been expensive. Fortunately, there are solutions coming online that will make it more affordable, and like Schlage, will offer the ability to control more than just your lights. Such integrated solutions stand a good chance at winning over consumers because they’ve integrated the smart grid (home energy consumption management) into other meaningful areas of home life (entertainment, security, health, family, etc.).
    ‘Smart grid’ does not need to be in a part of consumer venacular in order to make its benefits sexy.

  2. Katie Fehrenbacher Friday, March 26, 2010

    @Arun, I totally agree with you that it needs to be automated and make our lives simpler. Any tech that adds time to my day for the sake of electricity pricing would not get my vote.

  3. Pedro Hernandez Monday, March 29, 2010

    In related news, check out Katie’s latest:

    5 Things to Learn From Texas About the Smart Grid & Consumers
    http://earth2tech.com/2010/03/29/5-things-to-learn-from-texas-about-the-smart-grid-consumers/

    It echoes some of the themes we explored here, especially in light of Arun’s comments. Looks like we (and the SGCC) will have to keep our eyes on Texas to see how the consumer story plays out…

  4. harringtonbob Monday, March 29, 2010

    It is not just electricity I want to save, it is water and gas as well. A phone app that lets me reset my automatic timers for my furnace and irrigation systems would be a great start.

    Then put my dishwasher, refrigerator and water heater on there, and I would have a meaningful money and resource saving tool.

    Make it simple enough, I will do it. I want that.

  5. I agree with Arun and want to re-emphasize the consumer perspective here. The Smart Meter should NEVER be the “must-have gadget.” This would be like saying a 3G cell tower or WiFi access point are must-have gadgets. In the consumer’s eyes, these things (including Smart Meters) are confusing technology stuff that they don’t care about. ^^^As several replies mention, the consumer wants something to help them with their life. That can mean saving money on my energy bill or managing the family calendar better. We already have enough must-have gadgets, we need to expand their benefits.^^^

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