‘Smart’ Electric Utility Meters, Intended to Create Savings, Instead Prompt Revolt is a New York Times story that perhaps suggests a deeper truth: People don’t want their utilities to get smart on them. Except, occasionally, on request. Like, when a bill one month is strangely high.
These paragraphs encapsulate several problems at once:
At the urging of the state senator, Dean Florez, Democrat of Fresno and the chamber’s majority leader, and others, the California Public Utilities Commission is moving to bring in an outside auditor to determine whether the meters count usage properly.
In response to a wave of complaints from the Bakersfield area in the Central Valley, Pacific Gas & Electric has been placing full-page advertisements in newspapers in the area promising benefits from the new meters. It says customers will save money not only by paying rates based on hourly fluctuations in the wholesale market, but also eventually by displaying real-time rates.
To reduce their bills, customers could cut back at pricey peak times and shift some activities, like running a clothes dryer or a vacuum cleaner, to off-peak periods. Utilities will then have lower costs, the argument goes, because the grid will need fewer power plants as demand levels out.
Customers will become “structural winners,” said Andy Tang, senior director of the company’s Smart Energy Web program.
The first problem is that some customers (enough to cause a stink, and cause newspaper stories) think their new “smart” meters are cheating them. Let’s say the meters are fine. (And I’m betting they are.) What’s this say?
The second problem is that the meters complicate usage. Who (besides people paid to care) are interested in wholesale energy market price fluctuations? And how many customers are ready to modulate usage based on fluctuating real-time demand?
The third problem is cultural, normative, and to some degree explains the first two: We’re not used to caring about this kind of stuff. Much less about being “structural winners,” whatever those are.
What’s being called for here is not just new gear that helps users use less electricity, water and gas. And what’s proposed is not just the need for all of us to “go green” and care about wasting resources and cooking the planet. What’s proposed is re-conceiving what a utility is.
Utilities, at least to the end user, the final customer, the one paying the bills, are simple things. They are dumb. Their availabiliy is binary: it’s there or its not. When it is, you want to hold down costs, sure; but you expect it to be there full-time. There should be enough gas or oil to run a furnace, to boil an egg, to produce hot water. There should be enough electricity to light bulbs and keep appliances running. There should be enough water pressure for people to take showers and wash dishes. More than enough doesn’t get noticed. Less than enough is a problem. That or none requires a call to the utility company or the landlord.
“Smart” so far looks complicated. And most people don’t want complicated, especially from their utilities.
Now, what we’re talking about here is making all utilities digital. That is, computerized. Again, complicated. True, for a mostly good cause. But entirely good? I gotta wonder. When I see big companies like GE and IBM talking about making our power “smart,” I think they’re talking about making it smart their way. Which is not like other companies’ ways. And selling “solutions” to utility companies that are different than the next company’s “solutions,” and lock the customers into proprietary systems that can cause more annoyance than convenience down the road.
I haven’t studied any of this, so I don’t know. I’m just saying what I suspect. And I invite correction on the matter. If there are standard ways to smarten power, so that customers can swap out one company’s gear for another’s, that’s fine. But again, I dunno.
Meanwhile, let’s table that and look at the Internet. This is a place where we have a degree of intelligence in a utility. Customers in many places have choices about variables such as bandwidth, and “business” versus “home” levels of support.
But I think what we want out of the Internet is what we already have with water, gas and electricity: it’s just there. Nothing more complicated than that.
I hope that’s where we end up. But my fear is that old-fashioned utilities will get smart the way the phone and cable companies have made the Internet smart. And that would be dumb.