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Survey: Timeline for smart-grid payoff unclear

Energy efficiency company Comverge finds little agreement on when benefits from the smart grid will be realized.

In-home displays that give customers more detailed information on their energy consumption are low on utilities' priority list, according to a study conducted by an energy efficiency company.

Comverge on Tuesday published results of a survey of 100 attendees of the DistribuTech utility conference last week which also found that few could agree on when the benefits of the smart grid will take hold.

About one quarter said that there will be measurable benefits from smart-grid investments in one to three years, while almost 30 percent said that it would take more like 10 years.

However, over three-quarters of respondents said that budgets to modernize the grid are going up. In terms of spending priorities, smart meters and smart thermostats garnered the most attention over the next 12 months. So-called smart devices can communicate with each other, usually over a wireless network.

The smart grid means modernizing the electricity grid to be more reliable, efficient, and able to handle a two-way flow of energy on the grid. Electric Power Research Institute

Lower on the list are smart outlets and in-home energy displays, which provide consumers information on real-time energy consumption to help them cut down on wasted energy and a way to program connected appliances. That result suggests that utilities are focused more on installing modern equipment before trying to offer services to consumers through a home network.

In a statement, Comverge CEO Blake Young said that attendees who were queried were still struggling with how to realize benefits from smart-grid investments.

Comverge is not a neutral party in discussions over the smart grid. The company makes energy management software and equipment to ratchet down consumption at residential and commercial customers during peak times.

Utilities contract with demand-response companies, such as Comverge and EnerNoc, to shave energy use, which is cheaper and cleaner than turning on or building power plants to meet peak-time electricity demand.

Oracle last week published results of a utility executive survey which showed that many utilities are moving tentatively toward the smart grid with trial programs, many of which include smart-meter installations.

But there is growing concern that consumers aren't seeing benefits of these investments, notably the ability to lower utility bills through demand-response programs or information tools. Last week, the Smart Grid Consumer Coalition launched with the goal of researching consumers' reactions to smart-grid programs.