Smart Meter Benefits Should Mostly Go to Utilities, Initially

Michael Giberson

A week or so ago I posted, “Smart meter benefits mostly going to utilities so far,” riffing off a story, “Smart Meters: Not So Sharp For Consumers.” Today, Tyler Hamilton suggests in a post about smart meters that it is a good idea to focus on the utility benefits of smart meters at first.

The mistake — and again, just my view — is that smart meters have been improperly marketed to consumers as some kind of sexy wonder tool that will help them lower their bills. Instead, utilities should have downplayed the introduction and simply moved ahead with their installation as part of a less exciting grid modernization play — equivalent to a telecom company upgrading from analog to digital networks so that, down the road, new services can be offered to customers.

… By making this seem like some gift to consumers, as has been done, utilities open themselves up to consumers expecting certain results and wanting the option of getting or not getting the smart meter. I witness this every day in the e-mails I get and conversations I have with disgruntled Toronto Hydro customers. Later, once the smart meter infrastructure is in place, the utility can begin deploying the in-home monitors and Web applications that allow customers, on an optional basis, to better take advantage of time-of-use pricing and demand-response programs.

Probably some useful insight in Hamilton’s comments.  If 15 years ago cellphone companies had promised that, just around the corner, they’d deliver the kind of multimedia, internet capable phones like are readily accessible today, while continuing to deliver semi-portable bricks year after year, surely customers would have rebeled.

With the right set of technologies consumers can benefit today from smart grid developments (and manage their home energy networks remotely via their multimedia, internet capable cell phone), but not every utility installing smart meters will be capable of supporting such developments right away.  In some cases the fault may not be with the technology, but with the rules under which the wires and meter company or the retail power supplier operate.  Companies are bringing smart-meter complementary technologies and services to market, but most of these are still best used by the technology-tolerant early adopters.  These devices and services will get better and become more accessible for the non-techie consumers.

In any case, nothing wrong with a wires company underpromising on smart grid performance at first, so long as the technology installed is capable of supporting customer-centric capabilities. Avoid setting customers up for disappointment.  Then, as the market for complementary appliances and home energy management systems grows, consumers can be pleasantly surprised that, yes!, their electric meter will support intelligent, home-networked, customer-controlled energy management tools.

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