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Study: Smart meters need better user interface

A study published Wednesday confirms what utilities seem to be learning through trial and error: consumers need more than just smart meters to actively manage energy use.

Consumers needs better operating instructions for the smart grid, a survey published on Wednesday shows.

A Boston Consulting Group study found that the majority of consumers surveyed are willing to tap into the information from smart meters to conserve energy. But utilities haven't done a good enough job of enabling people to use their two-way meters constructively.

A smart meter from Pacific Gas & Electric. PG&E

The survey of 1,700 U.S. consumers, which was done online last December, found a strong interest in lowering energy use. Seventy-five percent of respondents said they were interested in finding easy ways to save power and two-thirds said that getting a daily information would help them better manage their bills.

The idea behind applications such as Google's PowerMeter or an in-home energy display is that more detailed information will help people find ways to curb energy use. Sixty-two percent of people said they would log onto an Internet site to check power consumption at least once a week, the Boston Consulting Group found.

Even though there's been a lot of talk about the smart grid, consumers don't appear familiar with smart meters or aren't yet sure of the actual benefit from them. Sixty-six percent of the respondents to the survey said they would like more communication from utilities on smart meters and less than 30 percent can recall getting information beyond the monthly bill.

Smart meters deliver some direct benefits to utilities, such as automated meter reading, and can be useful for implementing time-of-day pricing. But the lack of customer education threatens to undermine the economic reason to invest in smart meters, Boston Consulting Group said.

"We estimate that from 20 to 30 percent of a utility's customers will have to reduce their overall consumption or peak demand by 15 to 20 percent to make smart meters a winning proposition," said Pattabi Seshadri, a consultant at the Boston Consulting Group's energy practice, in a statement. "Falling short of that threshold will likely prevent the utility from delivering the necessary return on investment."

Seshardi suggested that utilities should explore partnerships with other industries well versed in introducing new products and services to consumers.