Twenty years from now your relationship with your electric utility likely will be fundamentally different from today. Currently you use electricity whenever you want, pay a flat rate for all of the energy you use, and the only real service you expect from your utility is to keep the lights on. Consumers in 2030, however, will have houses that are optimized to use energy when it’s most efficient, pay rates more closely related to the power’s cost, and expect their utility to be much more of a service provider.
At the heart of this change is information: information about the energy we use, how we use it, and the real value of that power. Data will flow in a two-way conversation between homeowners using electricity—and maybe even producing it, too—and the energy companies managing the electricity grid.
The smart meter is a key to managing all these information flows, and new research shows that smart meters are technically up to the challenges of the future. Consumers now have to learn how to benefit from this new technology.
The potential of these new gadgets goes well beyond the accuracy of their readings, however. They are teaching devices that can help customers be better-educated consumers.
The federal government can play a part in this education effort. So far it has invested billions of dollars in the smart grid as part of the stimulus bill. Most of this money will be spent on researching technological challenges that still exist or on investing in smart grid infrastructure, such as smart meters. It’s becoming clear, however, that consumer education will be just as important as technological soundness in the nationwide implementation of smart meters.
Instead of focusing entirely on technical solutions the government could invest greater resources into learning more about how to teach consumers about smart meters. The Department of Energy should request that either the National Renewable Energy Laboratory or the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory—both of which have significant expertise in electricity rates and utility operations—develop a framework to guide utilities’ education efforts in their smart meter rollouts. There are also important international examples, such as the smart meter program run by Enel, Italy’s largest utility, which has connected 32 million customers to the smart grid.
The Department of Energy and many others in the energy and engineering professions tend to think of energy as a technical challenge. But this isn’t always the case. If anything, smart meters’ ultimate success depends just as much on how utilities and their customers interact as metering technology. DOE should dedicate resources to education research that will help the nation take full advantage of the smart grid’s future promise.
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