Has Smart Metering hit the first speed bump in US?

Warren B. Causey | Nov 16, 2009

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The headline above actually was written by Vijayasekar Rajsekar, senior project engineer at AREVA T&D, Redmond, WA, on Linkedin, another of the social media sites making like mushrooms these days.  Linkedin appeals to professionals and there is a Smart Grid Forum started by a friend and colleague, Don McDonnell of The McDonnell Group, a public relations and strategic consulting firm serving the utility industry.

Vijayasekar actually started a new discussion thread on Linkedin with the question posed in the headline above.  He went on to point out that citizens of Bakersfield, CA, have sued Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PGE), San Francisco, because newly deployed “smart meters” are delivering much higher electric bills for Bakersfield residents—sometimes double and triple previous amounts.  Shortly after the filing of the lawsuit, PGE “suspended” its smart meter roll-out in Bakersfield, but is continuing it in other parts of its service territory.  Vijayasekar indicated he saw two issues in this evolving story, a technical one and a social one.

I agree with him entirely.  The technical issue—AMI, smart grid, intelligent utility, etc. has pretty much been solved.  The technology exists to do everything that is being posited by politicians and many in the industry.  The social issue is the problem that has not been resolved.

Vijayasekar writes: “The social angle is where PG&E and all meter vendors will experience strong head winds in deploying electronic meters. Many consumers can raise the following questions a) Will my energy bill increase when I replace my old meter with an electronic meter?, b) Can a hacker be able to manipulate my meter reading? c) What do I do if my energy bill shoots up after installing a new electronic meter?. These fears are similar to the problems that plague our country's electronic voting machines. In spite of all assurances from voting machine vendors and government officials, voters still have concerns whether the results from electronic voting machines are accurate. There are plenty of references and news articles regarding this ongoing debate.”

He goes on to ask: “So how can utilities and meter vendors avoid this problem? I am suggesting that a small percentage of consumers be given the option of maintaining both analog and electronic energy meters. This combination can be used for users who draw power from a specific distribution feeder so that each feeder will have dual meters which can be used to compare KWh consumption. If a dispute arises, the utility can verify the results against old analog meter. What do you think about this problem? If you are in a similar situation, what will you do?”

I believe Vijayasekar recognizes the issue I have been talking/writing about for a long time.  However, I think he left out one very important element in his otherwise very good Linkedin post. PGE says the meters are recording accurately, but that rates have gone up several times over the last year, as approved by the California Public Utilities Commission. Combine increased rates with changes in weather and PGE customers received a substantial bump in their cost for electricity at the same time the new meters were going in. Assuming PGE is telling the truth, and there is no readily evident, valid reason to doubt that, what we likely are seeing is the first wave of consumer reaction to the costs of not only smart meters, but a wide variety of environmental remediation and "green" energy mandates being imposed upon consumers.

California likes to claim it is "ahead of the curve" in everything and "a leader" in environmental/smart grid initiatives. In fact they are, and as a result electric rates are considerably higher there (like many other costs) than in most of the rest of the country. As the true costs of all of these environmentally-invoked developments begin to bite elsewhere, I expect we may be seeing more Bakersfields from coast to coast.

I'm not arguing against smart grid deployment, but I am pointing out that it is going to be costly for consumers. If enough of them get angry and—as Vijayasekar points out—enough of them get lawyers, of which there is a more-than-ample supply nationwide, then we could see a serious slowdown in smart grid/smart meter deployments nationwide.

Vijayasekar’s suggestion of dual meter deployment has merit. However, consumers are going to make the connection between smart meters and the overall higher costs of electricity resulting from them, mandates for high-cost green energy and other rapidly increased imposed costs. PGE’s suspension of deployments likely will not be the only one and the public could be up in arms, at least metaphorically, before all this plays out over the next few years.

Vijayasekar is exactly right that there are going to be social reactions to technological advances. The more expensive the advances, the more significant the reaction will be. Those are just simple principles learned in Economics, Sociology and History 101.  The midst of a serious recession is not a good time to be imposing higher costs on consumers. More politicians (perhaps even Al Gore and his fellow-travelers....Nah) are going to come to understand those important principles before this all works out.  

Although many politicians in California, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere seem to be intent on ignoring those social principles, as Vijayasekar points out, you cannot separate the technology from the social issues, at least not for very long.  And as long as we remain a semi-democracy, stuffing things, including new technology designed to mitigate questionable environmental threats, down the general public's throats by legislation and regulation is going to be a risky business.  I’m all for the technology, but the social issues behind it remain very debatable and the general public is going to join the debate.  That’s always a good thing, even in California.  Yep, they're ahead of the curve again.

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