Crossroads 2012: meters and the future

Spending down (or up?), madness over meters

Phil Carson | Jun 11, 2012


I'm seeing conflicting reports on the state of grid modernization, from rosy scenarios on spending to dire warnings of a drop-off in spending. 

Meanwhile, the drumbeat against interval meters continues. Could a wholesale uproar over meters affect grid modernization and spending on same? I occasionally bring examples of anti-meter rants to your attention because I think the industry needs to know what it's facing. 

"Smart grid equals worse than dumb idea" is the title of an op-ed column appearing in the Gaston Gazette last week in Gaston County, North Carolina, by Cheryl Pass. 

Now, I have reservations about how so-called smart meters have been sold, and I think there are legitimate concerns about data privacy. But you and I both know that, if done right, interval meters enable a great deal of intelligence on the distribution system. They enable reliability and efficiency by playing a role in outage detection and restoration and serving as sensors that allow utilities to measure the effects of voltage conservation, among other things. 

On the customer side, yes, utilities have been slow to follow meter swap-outs with clear value for the customer, but regulators are keeping up the pressure for them to do so. 

Comes now Ms. Pass with her recent op-ed piece. 

"When utility companies and government collaborate, the buyer better beware," Pass wrote. "When complicit media tells you to reduce your energy consumption because of catastrophic climate predictions, followed up by government regulations forcing you to reduce your energy consumption, and then utility companies figure out how to make you buy less of their product while charging you more for it, you need to put the dots together and figure out why and who is driving this policy."

Naturally, my mind instead goes to what's driving this fact-less tirade?

"The first fact you need to know is that there is no man-made Global Climate Change Catastrophe," Pass wrote. "Environmentalists have gone from Chicken Little lunatics to modern-day scam artists." 

Hmmm. So far, not much about distribution system intelligence. 

"The latest energy scam?" snarled Pass. "Smart meters. Modernizing the energy grid for our nation seems like a good idea. Everyone wants a reliable energy supply. But the devil is in the details. Smart meters are an offense to all citizens for many reasons: 


1. Real-time surveillance by utilities and government

2. Health risks due to higher radio frequency concentrations

3. No cost-benefit to consumers, higher prices, peak-hour rates, opt-out fees

4. Higher danger of home theft, strangers' knowledge of personal activities within the home 

5. National security issues, larger grid networks at risk of hacking

6. Personal energy use information will be sold to manufacturers

So far, so good—an almost perfectly fact-free "opinion" piece. But there's more!

"Are you willing to pay astronomically higher rates to cook your dinner in the evening or take your shower in the morning?" Pass wrote. "Are you willing to give some stranger access to your personal life habits? Are you interested in exposing your family and yourself to extremely high radio frequencies? Do you think our energy grid should be one huge system, vulnerable to enemy hackers? Who do you want in charge of your thermostat? Laundry at midnight, anyone?

"Over recent years, the public has been told that fossil fuel energy is too scarce, when new sources of oil and gas energy and methods of retrieving them are being discovered daily," Pass continued, sowing a veritable field of straw men. "The public has been told that it is bad to buy from evil enemies of the U.S. and that our only option is to cut our energy use to the bone, when, in fact, it is government restricting supplies.

"Governments at all levels are pushing energy consumers into some guilt-ridden psychosis, with the goal of forcing Americans to use less energy. While efficient energy use is a reasonable personal goal, our leadership has gone into the netherworld of zero allowable carbon goals, completely unattainable goals that will require rationing. The perfect tool for rationing would be the smart meter. 

"I urge you to adamantly reject any utility company placing a smart meter surveillance device on your home or business. I also encourage you to alert your lawmakers that you will not, now or ever, accept the installation of such a device on your home or business."

What can I add here, except that it might behoove a utility executive to rebut this tangled web of paranoia and misinformation. I'd like to feature such a rebuttal.

I could write such a piece. But I'd rather hear from the power industry on this one. Any takers to rebut Pass' assertions? It's no biggie to me, girding as I am for a whole summer of lies as the presidential election warms up. But the critics of interval meters aren't going away. And they make well take the future of grid modernization with them. 

For more fun with meters, see: 

"IEE's Wood: Opt-out? Pay the Cost!"

"Dayton Power & Light: An Exception Worth Considering"

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily

Related Topics


To rebut or not to rebut....

What a great diversity of comments here today -- thanks everyone. 

I sense that many would rather write off Ms. Pass and those receptive to her diatribe and, instead, attempt to reach those who've not made up their minds. 

Somehow, that seems squeamish to me. In arguing the value proposition of smart meters, would there be any difference between the message for the undecided  and the message to the we're-not-going-to-take-it crowd? I'd argue there's no difference. And, of course, you don't know who's in the latter category. 

Further, I think that refusal to respond to someone's op-ed piece is kind of cowardly, in that letting that stuff go out unchallenged accentuates its effectiveness. 

I'm saying that charging us for equipment that produces efficiencies, when those efficiencies pay for the equipment is disingenuous and greedy. I'm saying that privacy matters do need to be taken seriously -- just because privacy is surrendered elsewhere doesn't make it okay for the power industry to leave that to chance.

I get the improvements meters provide in the meter-to-cash cycle (utility benefit). I get the efficiencies around remote connect/disconnect (utility benefit). I get the purported advantages that interval meters provide to outage detection and restoration (utility benefit, diffuse customer benefit). And I'm unconcerned about RF radiation from smart meters. (I rarely use a cell phone and, then, use one only for a minute or two.)  

What I'd like to know is when will meters be followed by dynamic pricing and other incentives to shift use to preclude the expense and pollution of additional peaker plants to serve the peak? And a clear message that that probably won't result "saving money" but managing inevitable increases in costs that will make utility bills more onerous than they are now. These would be customer benefits. And  since when is global warming the only reason to do anything about coal plant emissions? We know darn well that emissions have many harmful effects to human health without using the straw man of global warming to dismiss it. 

If no one in the utility industry can articulate the positive value message recommended here and, in passing, knock down most of Ms. Pass' straw men, then perhaps they cannot do so.

I sincerely offer anyone who would like to try to do this a prominent edittorial platform for it. Across all our readership, there's not one utility executive willing to give it a try?

I'd say Ms. Pass  wins, 1-0. 

Regards, Phil Carson  

Hard to "Sell" Such Little Value...

I concur with the first to respond. Utilities didn't and don't need the "granularity" of home-by-home monitoring for operations or restoration. Separately, there has yet to be a single compelling case for residential benefits.

So if the utility is able to effectively operate without residential smart meters and homeowner benefits are nil to I-don't-care, what's the point? If you take Ms. Pass's article as a bill-of-possibilities rather than a screed, it's hard not to wonder where she might be onto something and why the push for smart meters.

Speaking of which, where is the data that was supposed to percolate up from those smart meter "demonstration projects" that scattered across the nation a couple of years ago at multi-million-dollar scale each?

Over the top -- but not by much

I have to agree with those who have commented thus far that Ms. Pass is perhaps a bit hyperbolic in her expression but does raise some valid concerns.  Yes, she could go off grid as Jack suggests -- but somehow I don't see her jumping on the solar bandwagon.  And, utilities are consistently, unequivocally their own worst enemy.  All you need to do is look at the recent Xcel rate case in Colorado to understand that.  And, while data privacy concerns are real, I don't believe that it is all part of a larger scheme by Big Brother to control the masses.  

She makes a point that most rational people would opt to be good stewards of the environment when offered reasonable aternatives to do so.  But, we need to keep in mind the fact that most people consider electricity a necessity commodity that they don't want to have to monitor weekly, daily, or heaven forbid, hour by hour.  I keep coming back to the comment made by the former chairman of the Colorado PUC who, when implementing tiered rates, said: "For years, consumers have advocated the more you use, the more you pay for electricity." Spoken by a true energy afficionado who is out of touch with the concerns of ordinary folks.

So, I wouldn't oppose a smart meter but am not convinced I need one either.  Given my utility's prediliction for burdening its ratepayers for anything it can get away with (you've written widely about Xcel's boondoggle Smart Grid City project), I tend to be suspicious of motivations as well.  All of which is moving me slowly away from the traditional regulatory model and into the camp of retail choice.

Rich Mignogna, Golden, Colorado

Show customers the value

I have to agree with John - it's better to focus on the value smart meters bring rather than to spend time on someone else's agenda.  The value lies in being able to provide customers with useful information - and this goes far beyond showing a customer how many kWh or therms were used each hour.  Information that customers see value in so far include bill updates (weekly pushed or available anytime a customer wishes to know), if a customer bill exceeds a threshold (established by the customer), why their bill is higher this month than last month or last year, comparisons to other customers,  targetted energy efficiency tips, opportunities to save money on their energy bill by participation in various programs - demand response, A/C cycling programs, dynamic pricing programs, etc.

As the green button initiative expands and more apps are available to take  customer data and provide additional customer benefits, we will see opposition fade away.  As others have mentioned, many of use still use Facebook, the Internet, grocery store cards, frequent flier mile programs, cell phones, Netflix, smart phone apps - all of which may provide bits and pieces of our lives to others which might at sometime be used inappropriately by others - but the point is, we still use these services because the value is higher than the risk.

I like Netflix because it avoids the ads, which in a presidential election year is highly desirable. On the other hand, some people will have access ot my viewing preferences, which recently have focused on the 2011 Doctor Who episodes and reruns of the Dick Van Dyke Show.  I am willing to take that risk to avoid the deluge of political ads coming our way.

Consumers Have Choices

Cheryl Pass and other, similarly minded people have viable choices when it comes to electric supply, even if they live in a state that doesn't allow retail competition.  It's called solar PV.  If they dont like the fact that their local utility has installed a more modern cash register, they should consider installing solar panels and batteries, then cutting the cord to their local utility.  Or perhaps a natural gas fired engine that can also produce hot water would be more reliable.  No one seems to be complaining about the fact that a lot of personal information is collected by merchants at the point of sale every time a purchase is made with a credit card, so why all the fuss about electricity consumption data, which in many jurisdictions is much more tightly protected?  If Ms. Pass has a Facebook account, she has probably exposed more private information than any electricity meter ever could.

Just a few things to think about on this Tuesday morning.

Jack Ellis, Tahoe City, CA

Is a Rebuttal the Wrong Battle to Fight?


Important topic and excellent example of an opposition comment that is in the range of "death panels" to the fore. Perhaps my only concern would be the worry that we consider most/all opposition to smart meters in this league -- I think one could be opposed to Obamacare without believing the "death panel" nonsense. There is a risk that we underestimate and trivialize the opposition as merely the job of educating the ignorant.

I think you’ve nailed the source of the problem with your simple line . . . “On the customer side, yes, utilities have been slow to follow meter swap-outs with clear value for the customer, but regulators are keeping up the pressure for them to do so.”

As an industry, isn’t that all we need to do, explain the value – to . . . the . . . consumer? In my opinion, a strategy of rebutting these dubious appeals to conspiracy theories and radio waves will mean we’ve lost the war before we’ve fought the first battle. And we might win each battle on our way to a strategic defeat.

Do the believers in the ‘radiation problem’ ignore concerns from the (more believable) risk from cell phones? Do these same people dose themselves regularly with radiation from air travel? If they do, is it because they see value in these activities, and they judge the trade-offs?

So, I might recommend we ignore a rebuttal, and get on with the positive message. How will smart meters lower my electricity bill? Presuming that’s a tough lift, can we at least make the harder-to-sell hypothetical case, “If it weren’t for smart meters your bill now would have been x, and instead it’s 0.90x?” Regulators are needed to ‘keep up pressure’ on utilities to explain the value message? Good grief. I could get my own self opposed to smart meters, if this is the state of the industry’s sense of responsibility in its own messaging.

John Richter

AMI Analytics

Is a Rebuttal the Wrong Battle to Fight? - Jun 12, 2012 - 7:39

Bravo, John -- bravo...

Is a Rebuttal the Wrong Battle to Fight? - Jun 12, 2012 - 7:39

Bravo, John -- bravo...

She may be strident but does have some possible points

There are a few things that one has to wonder about:

  • The issue that smartmeters help the utilities locate outages.  Since most circuits have a number of customers, why did the utilities not simply put one meter on each of the circuits instead of several individual meters at the customer locations? 
  • The utilities already know when their peak power usage is--they do not need individual customer smart meters for that.
  • Utilities already know which major circuits have the peak draws and when.  They have the major transmission circuits already metered so they know to reroute power when a particular circuit is getting congested.


So, one does have to wonder exactly why the big push on individual smart meters if not to prompt individual lifestyle changes.  What happens if the prompting does not work?  Then it might well be time-of-use charges or might the resolution be electricity rationing in order to meet green mandates? 

While I personally enjoy being able to see my electricity usage pattern so I can make adjustments, I am deeply concerned about the privacy issues related to smartmeters and the potential control implications of individual smart meters.  I think many people severely underestimate the corrupting influence that the power to control others has on our political leadership.