Meters as object of suspicion
Will grid modernization slow as opposition continues?
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.
Intelligent Utility Daily