Consumers getting more attention in smart grid

Smart-grid stimulus money was heavy on hardware, but utility industry groups are now focusing on giving consumers energy management tools that promote efficiency.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
4 min read

The role of consumers--the end point in the complex chain of the power grid--is coming into sharper focus, as the country tries to modernize its electrical infrastructure.

As part of the government stimulus program, millions of smart meters will be installed over the next three years, providing a two-way connection between utilities and their customers. But despite the focus on hardware in the multibillion-dollar smart-grid program, both utilities and advocacy groups are starting to sing the virtues of consumer involvement.

Cisco's home energy controller--one of the many consumer home energy management tools being tested by utilities. Cisco Systems

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy on Tuesday released results of a survey finding that energy use feedback tools are more important than smart meters in reducing consumers' energy use. Analyzing 57 residential feedback programs since 1974, the ACEEE concluded that no utilities have sufficient end-user tools, such as more detailed billing or giving real-time feedback through Web pages or in-home displays.

"Advanced metering initiatives alone are neither necessary nor sufficient for providing households with the feedback that they need to achieve energy saving; however, they do offer important opportunities," John "Skip" Laitner, director of Economic and Social Analysis at the ACEEE, said in a statement. "To realize potential feedback-induced savings, advanced meters must be used in conjunction with in-home (or online) displays and well-designed programs that successfully inform, engage, empower, and motivate people."

Programs that give people more control over their household electricity use and help them reduce waste can ultimately cut consumption 4 percent to 12 percent, according to the ACEEE, which said the savings could add up to $35 billion over 20 years.

Smart-grid companies are also getting on the "consumer engagement" bandwagon.

The Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative, a group formed earlier this year to better understand consumer needs in the smart grid, on Wednesday announced a number of new members, including Accenture, Intel, American Electric Power, Itron, Progress Energy, the Texas Office of Public Counsel, the Vermont Electric Power Company, and the United Consumer Advocacy Network.

Another new member is well-known design firm Frog Design, which will be leading two sessions for the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative around energy and consumer awareness.

User interface to grid
Tools, such as in-home energy displays or Web portals, are important to educate consumers who, on the whole, don't have a good understanding of the home energy management capabilities that digital technologies enable.

At last week's Kema Utility of the Future conference, utility executives recognized that lagging consumer involvement in the smart grid poses a risk to meeting energy efficiency goals.

In one example of a utility coupling energy management programs with smart meters, Duke Energy on Tuesday announced that Cisco Systems will provide a home energy "controller" for Duke's smart-grid programs in Charlotte, N.C., and Cincinnati.

Home energy displays show you the juice (photos)

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The touch-screen display, designed to stand on a countertop, is essentially a tablet computer that gathers usage information from network-enabled devices, such as two-way thermostats or large appliances connected to so-called smart plugs to convey data to the controller. This trial, which will give appliance-by-appliance information, is one of a number of consumer-facing Duke smart-grid trials.

In the case of Duke, the smart meter will transmit energy data regularly to the display and to the utility, so it can view changes in electricity demand over its territory.

But there are a number of home energy management systems that can get regular energy data without a smart meter by using a gateway device, home network, and broadband connection. The Energy Detective and Powerhouse Dynamics' eMonitor gather circuit-by-circuit energy data using sensors attached to clamps on a circuit box.

Consulting and research company SBI Energy this week released a study saying about 80 percent of money invested in the smart grid is on the utility side, such as upgrades to grid equipment and computer technology to handle the spike in data. But that mix will change, as more equipment, including smart meters, is installed on the consumer side, analyst David Cappello said.

J.D. Power and Associates on Thursday released a study finding that utilities have a long way to go in educating consumers about smart-grid technologies, particularly in certain regions. In many cases, regulators, too, need to change the rules on how utilities recoup their investment in technology. But smart-grid programs also present an opportunity for utilities to improve customer relations.

"As state governments and utility companies develop infrastructure and implementation strategies for smart grids and smart meters, it will be critically important for them to incorporate the voice of the customer in their plans," Jeff Conklin, senior director of the energy and utility practice at J.D. Power, said in a statement.