Meters as object of suspicion

Will grid modernization slow as opposition continues?

Phil Carson | Aug 19, 2012


As last week's column, "Taking the High Ground on Meters," and a few other items illustrate, the power industry has its work cut out for it. 

One comment on one of last week's forums suggested that politics have no place in power industry discussions—perhaps the most naïve comment I've read since Goldilocks and the Three Bears put porridge in the headlines. The two are inextricably entwined, as the current presidential campaign illustrates in debates over the effectiveness of stimulus spending on energy projects and whether to extend wind industry tax credits. Smart meters also fit here, as the forum comments to the aforementioned column illustrate too well.   

First, see "On Energy Policy, A Week of Venus and Mars" in The New York Times on Friday, which highlights the current political divide in the election over basic policies involving the wind tax credit and the mix of fossil fuels and renewable resources. 

Then there was an article in The New York Times on Friday, "Note to Self: Check Those Utility Bills," which featured a delicious consumer horror story. An elderly woman in an apartment was mistakenly billed for $10,000-worth of street lighting that wasn't her responsibility. (After fixing the current billing, but refusing to pay her back the $10,000, the utility relented and made good.) One of the forum comments to that article suggested that smart meters run fast and cause higher bills, when we know that electro-mechanical meters over time run slow and allow some customers to not pay their fair share.  

Next, I had an offline conversation last week with a well-recognized engineer who is deeply involved in smart grid work across the country and around the world. He told me he expects grid-related spending to slow in the final months of this year due to uncertainty: uncertainty over court challenges to rules issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, uncertainty over the direction of regulations from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, uncertainty over whether PURPA (Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act) will be renewed. 

Further, my source said, the stimulus spending under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) apportioned by the U.S. Department of Energy was targeted at getting 16.6 million smart meters installed, of which 12 million have been installed, with another million committed. That's about 13 million out of the intended 16.6 million. The balance may or may not be installed, he said, principally because smaller utilities are questioning whether they have the expertise to properly rollout the advanced metering infrastructure (AMI). 

Whether non-stimulus driven AMI continues after the current pipelines clears is an open question and we've covered the case of utilities that cannot make the business case work. (See, for instance, "Dayton Power & Light: An Exception Worth Considering.") That's a legitimate point, on a case-by-case basis. But it's worth noting that some utilities have accomplished AMI prior to the stimulus spending because they indeed found the business case compelling. To condemn the technology and its business case because some utilities don't find the numbers pencil out, obviously, is too sweeping. 

And now to the comments on last week's column, "Taking the High Ground on Meters," which reported on the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative's effort to counter misinformation on smart meters by providing facts. 

But the notion that factual information will have an impact, even as we land a six-wheeler on Mars (could that have been faked?), is perhaps naïve in the current environment. Regardless of the detailed exegeses here and elsewhere, one anonymous forum post last week had this to say:

"So the SGCC refutes some of the more outlandish claims of Smart Meter opponents," our anonymous poster wrote. "Whatever. There has yet to be a single coherent case made for the installation of residential Smart Meters. At first, they were `sold' on the basis of `helping' the consumer save. That half (or less) truth was generally abandoned as consumers revealed their disinterest in droves. Without the excuse of `savings,' it seems the industry has been a bit more forthcoming with respect to the dynamic pricing play but again, consumers sense they aren't getting the whole story. And they aren't. Meanwhile, untold millions of dollars have been and will be spent on meter installations without clear justification."

That this missive was followed by Richard Pates' comment, below, seemed unconvincing - although I'll place more credibility on a signed comment than on an anonymous one. 

"Thanks Phil for bringing this information forward," Pates wrote. "In today's world of growing misinformation madness, it is easy to see why so many people are confused. I hope those who really want to know and understand the technology advancements find this information (useful)."

When I'm feeling optimistic, I'd guess that there's a segment of the population that can still make valid assessments when confronted with mixed messages and sometimes contradictory evidence. Personally, I find a lot of mistrust of investor-owned utilities out there and we see it in our forum. But the folks who design and build the grid are without reservation that metering is essential both to grid operations and to end-user participation in the system. We've detailed the reasons at length. It's going to happen, but apparently in fits and starts, with lots of naysayers who remain largely nameless and without convincing logic or, dare I say, facts. 

Will the power industry's many stakeholders manage to deliver a compelling case and will smart meters and AMI play a significant role in the future of our modernized grid? That remains an open question.

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily  




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You reap what you sow...

I find it amusing that many of the very same people who likely carry cell phones that allow various government entities to track their movements, read their text messages, and intercept their phone conversations are terrified that the government will somehow invade their privacy through their electric meter (see recent NY Times article.) Having spent much of the past dozen years developing applications that allow energy users to save money through the use of interval energy data, I have to put the blame squarely where it belongs--on the utilities that pushed smart meters on their customers before adequately educating them on the potential benefits or developing the tools that would have made them truly useful. Yes it's true that there was a one-time opportunity to use ARRA money to install the meters, but it's not like the customer-facing applications required breaking new ground. Very useful and simple-to-use web sites that allow customers to save money with interval meter data have been around since at least the mid-90's. As I've said many times on this site and others, people can generally be counted upon to act in their own self-interest. Just as nobody would now drive a car that didn't have a speedometer or gas gauge (early cars didn't), eventually people will find it just as odd that people formerly used energy without any real-time awareness of the quantity or cost. If you think about it, it makes as much sense as buying a shopping cart full of groceries with no price tags, then getting a bill six weeks later--after you've eaten the food, forgotten what you purchased, and can't figure out if was worth the cost..

Greg Tinfow
CEO, Energy Informatics LLC


Phil: I think you may misunderstand the objections some of your readers have to your politically-charged comments. I fully understand the presence and importance of politics in smart meter discussions. An even-handed and unemotional discussion of the political influences at work is needed to fully comprehend the issue. What I (and perhaps many of your other readers) object to is opportunistic and "low road" shots at the Bush administration or Republicans in general. You do a fantastic job of presenting the issues and generating thought. Don't ruin it by alienating your readers. Regards, Steve Rhodes


Smart Meters are the classic "Trojan horse": simply a means for utilities to charge the hapless consumer "time-of-day" rates and pass all risk to the consumer. This whole nefarious scheme is aided-and-abetted by feckless politicians believing they are saving-the-planet.

The meters are of virtually of no value to the ratepayer. Folks who design and build grids have an obvious vested interest, as they can make lots of money through the deployment of the meters. As for the grid itself, digital protection systems have been around for some time and simply do not require the smart meters.


Nothing unique

Although I find the tone of this opinion piece could be reduced to something like, "the stupid people who cling to their opposition will eventually be forced to live with smart meters as the train will roll on," it highlights key points that are not unique.  You may describe people as unenlightened, or worse, ignorant, but the basis for their resistance is as common as... I don't know, maybe a distrust in a politician.  Minor or even major distortions of data or disprovable studies conducted with the singular goal to show detriment or reverse a value claim are wildly common on nearly every matter.  It is worsened to a large degree by being politicized.  Engaging tax dollars and the appearance of force will never get 100% compliance or agreement.  In this case it has a tone of "either you are with us or you are against us."  Telling people that they are on the wrong side and their compliance is inevitable is surely no way to change many minds.

I live in a region (New England) that tries hard to pose as politically progressive and routinely adopts such policies, especially on social matters.  There are even towns that often make proclamations, sometimes unanimously supported by town councils, to show the world their progressive bona fides.  However, the level of adoption of renewable energy sources is dismal compared to other regions, say Texas - picked as an example because of its opposiing political tilt.  Biomass, wind, and solar are routinely fought and battles are won frequently that end projects.  Cape Wind is notorious in the length of time it has been in progress and the accrued expenses to date without a single action towards a buildout or the generation of a single watt.  Were it not for the generous amounts of hydropower thanks in part to Quebec and the regional interconnect, most states would have a particularly low portion of "green" or renewable energy supply.

There will always be naysayers who are convinced of their reasoning.  They see biomass as toxic, wind farms as ugly and environmentally threatening, smart meters as a health threat, etc.  While their ranks can be and are often are minimized through time using diligent debate and a meaningful, steady application of facts and data, treating them as ignorant others is a sure way to guarantee that doesn't happen.