How successful utilities are at motivating consumers to actively manage energy will go a long way toward determining whether many smart-grid investments improve the country's energy efficiency. At the GridWise Global Forum here this week, consumers, although absent, are playing a starring role, a reflection of how many utilities realize they need to change how they interact with customers.
Several speakers, from IBM CEO Sam Palmisano to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission chairman Jon Wellinghoff, voiced concern that residential electric power customers are vital to efficiency gains through smart-grid technology, yet many have not bought into the idea.
"All these infrastructure investments, which I think we all believe are necessary to make, are mucking up the picture for the customer because, on the surface anyway, they drive up the cost of service and are complicating their lives," said Alex Laskey, the president of OPower, which provides home efficiency recommendations through utilities. "There's an obligation on our end to deliver value."
Many states have regulations that require utilities to use energy more efficiently, one of the reasons for grid modernization. Early smart-grid trials have shown that giving consumers more information on usage, either through a Web portal, dedicated device, or a printed report, helps consumers cut wasted energy.
But for many of utilities' efficiency investments to bear fruit, they need participation from customers. For example, scaling back peak-time energy usage requires consumers and businesses to sign up for demand-response programs where they turn down power use in exchange for some kind of payment.
At the conference, attendees talked far more about the human component of the smart grid, rather than the nuts-and-bolts technology. That's because people have realized that surfacing detailed energy information on a smartphone, PC, or in-home display doesn't get people to act and take more responsibility for their energy use, said David Merkoski, executive creative director at design firm Frog Design. "The problem with these devices and services is that there are lots of them. We are now drowning in awareness tech," he said. "They're helping--they make the invisible visible--but they're not getting to the fundamental problem, which is a behavioral problem."
What are the direct benefits?
Smart meters, the most visible aspect of a digital energy grid, can provide benefits to consumers quickly, said OPower's Laskey.People could, for example, get bills that explain how power use breaks down between different appliances, or get alerts notifying them that they are on track to consume more than usual. In many cases, people can save money with the introduction of time-of-use rates, he said.
The problem for the electric power industry is that early smart-grid trials didn't clearly inform consumers of the potential benefits of the smart grid, either to their personal energy spending or society at large. In many cases, introduction of an unfamiliar technology--a smart meter--caused distrust and angry customers, conference speakers said.
"Nobody is doing a good job [with consumers]," said Paul Budde, the executive director of Smart Grid Australia. "It's very sad, but we are all learning."
Utilities in Australia were forced into working with consumer interest groups, such as people with disabilities, and are now seeking more input from customers on the services they want, Budde said.
Talking about "customer engagement" and launching customer outreach programs is a big shift from the traditional model where customers were "passive ratepayers." But increasingly, utilities are finding more energy-conscious consumers who are willing to take steps to conserve, said Ted Craver, president and CEO of California utility Edison International.
"Things are accelerating and we anticipate the pace of change will be quite rapid, but it will be gated by how we can really engage the customer," he said. "Now we have the lowest level of engagement you could possibly imagine--it's one way, it's slow, and it's pretty much one size fits all."
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