Grid first

AARP discusses value for older consumers

Published In: Intelligent Utility Magazine November/December 2009

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WHEN PEOPLE TALK SMART GRID, ONE TOPIC THAT KEEPS COMING UP IS the consumer-both from the standpoint of engaging consumers and also of using advanced technologies to generate additional value for consumers. There is certainly a lot of promise with smart grid technologies-from effectively integrating renewable generation to better informing customers about their energy use. But these promises come with a substantial price tag, which could significantly impact energy affordability, particularly for older consumers.

To learn more about a smarter grid's impact on the older population, we looked to the AARP, which represents the interests of people 50 years of age and older. In its Issue Brief: Energy Affordability, AARP said that it is "lobbying to mitigate the price impact of smart grid technology, advanced metering and dynamic pricing." To learn more about the details behind this statement, we talked with Chris Baker, who, as a strategic policy advisor for AARP, researches how changes in the telecommunications, energy and IT industries impact older people's ability to obtain and use products and services from these industries.

SMART GRID HAS VALUE

AARP sees value in a smarter grid, but is concerned about the value of certain components. "Smart grid is very expensive, but important," said Baker. "Smart grid is an excellent thing to be working on, but we are concerned about the focus-particularly on smart meters. Smart meters will require a lot of money and that will affect our members."

AARP isn't convinced that smart meters will bring as much value to consumers as some organizations out there are promising. Rather, AARP sees more potential with investments in smart technologies for the transmission and distribution networks. "Reliability is important to older people and improving efficiency on the grid can help save money," said Baker.

"SMART" EDUCATION

AARP's approach toward smart grid is less about educating its membership and more about reaching out to people making decisions about and influencing smart grid investments- including submitting comments to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission about its concerns. "And we have been working at the state level to make sure people understand what the benefits are and what the costs are," said Baker.

But with the increasing interest in customer engagement, some smart energy devices will likely end up in people's homes. Baker maintains that people will adopt new technologies if they are user-friendly, helpful and affordable-older people are no different. For example, "Older users not only play video games more often than younger users, but also spend more time playing per session," said Baker.
At the same, even with interest in more advanced technologies, there are also more "old-fashioned" approaches to changing energy consumption patterns. Energy efficiency and energy conservation are terms that get tossed around in the utility industry, but "we have to be careful with that message," said Baker. "In the 1970s, with energy conservation, people thought that it meant putting a sweater on. But people may have issues with medications that can affect their ability to stay warm. The aging process can make it more difficult to maintain a body temperature that is safe. Public health and energy advocates have moved along in different silos, but the connection between affordable energy and sufficient health is going to grow."

"People want to save energy," said Baker. "But there are ways to make the system more efficient that can benefit energy consumers," which for AARP means focusing more on technologies that make a smarter grid before making a smarter meter.

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