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Group formed to sell consumers on smart grid

Launching Tuesday, Smart Grid Consumer Coalition aims to promote the benefits of the smart grid to consumers in the wake of smart-meter backlash.

A handful of companies on Tuesday will launch the Smart Grid Consumer Coalition, an effort aimed at promoting the benefits to consumers of modernizing the electricity grid.

The coalition is scheduled to be launched at this week's DistribuTech utility industry conference and will include IBM, General Electric, and home energy management company Control4 among its founding members, according to an invitation sent to the media. Also set to participate is a representative from the Ohio Consumers' Counsel, a state agency which advocates on behalf of retail electricity consumers.

Tendril's Vision is a home energy display designed for ease of use, one way to get consumers to more actively manage home energy. Tendril

The creation of the Smart Grid Consumer Coalition comes at a time when backlashes against the installation of smart meters have flared up in California and, more recently, Texas.

After utility Pacific Gas & Electric installed two-way meters at households in Bakersfield, Calif., some customers complained that the meters were malfunctioning and causing higher bills. Although the higher bills corresponded with hotter weather, and thus more energy consumption, the situation is still being studied, according to a local news report.

Meanwhile, a smart-meter rollout in Texas has also sparked consumer complaints. After finding no metering problems in a first test, electricity provider Oncor is running side-by-side tests between the digital meters and older mechanical ones, according to a local report.

Questions over accuracy aside, the formation of the Smart Grid Consumer Coalition is a recognition that, for the most part, consumers are not realizing tangible benefits of better home efficiency from the installation of smart meters.

Having meters in place allows for more advanced features, such as participating in demand-response efficiency programs to lower bills and getting detailed information on usage to save energy. But those applications in many cases are not being rolled out immediately.

"Utilities in particular are talking about the great promise of the smart grid and how it can transform our electrical infrastructure and really our economy. And yet, there is definite concern that if consumers don't embrace the new technologies the smart grid enables, we're all going to be in a world of hurt," said Susan Cashen, the vice president of marketing at Control4, which has been involved in the effort.

While the benefits to consumers may take some time to take hold, utilities typically benefit in the form of automated meter reading. From a national perspective, bulked-up power lines and a communications infrastructure to manage the flow of electricity will allow the country to greatly increase solar and wind power.

The Smart Grid Consumer Coalition, which will be a nonprofit, will focus on understanding what issues need to be addressed to improve customer education and acceptance, said Cashen. "It became clear that...nothing was really focused on the consumer," she said.