The Smart Grid and Consumers: Unanswered Questions
By: Joe Miller
In past articles in this series (see links at bottom), I’ve pointed out how important the consumer value proposition is for gaining their support for the Smart Grid. In addition to the potential "prize” the Smart Grid might offer them, other consumer concerns must be addressed to gain their trust and comfort with the dramatic change the Smart Grid represents.
Some Consumer Concerns
The first step in seeking consumer support is to identify and catalog their specific concerns in areas such as the following:
Burdensome new tools â€" "keeping it simple.” A recent Forbes article raises the important question of simplicity: Given that many consumers fail to program their video recording systems and thermostats, how likely is it that the average consumer will want to take the time to learn how to use energy management software that can monitor and optimize their energy usage? How do we make it as simple as "set it and forget it?”
Privacy. Some consumer groups raise the issue of privacy, as reported on the Matter Network site. Not everyone wants their utility to have detailed information on their energy usage patterns, which can also reveal a great deal about their overall lifestyle. How do we protect the privacy of consumers? Other industries have addressed this concern. Let’s check with them.
Control and trust. Consumer groups have raised questions about whether utilities should have the right to vary pricing over the course of a day as production costs change. They also worry that Smart Grid technologies are just another way for utilities to make extra money off consumers. "It's the biggest hype since electric [deregulation] and has the same amount of factual basis," says Barbara Alexander, a consultant for several state consumer advocates, as quoted in a Business Week story.
These and other consumer questions remain unanswered. Here are a few more:
Why do we need to pursue the consumer side (smart meters) before Smart Grid upgrades are made to the distribution system?
Why can’t many of the benefits that Smart Grid provides be done with existing technologies, e.g., existing demand response technologies?
All consumers will pay for Smart Grid investments, but only some will (can) take the initiative to achieve the full set of benefits. Is that fair?
Will consumers have to purchase additional devices to participate with the Smart Grid and enjoy its benefits, e.g., home area networks, in-home displays?
Will Smart Grid technologies increase the risk of cyber security breaches resulting in a less secure grid and the leaking of private consumer data?
Additional work is needed to define, understand, and address these and other consumer concerns regarding the transition to the Smart Grid. Consumer education programs should be interactive â€" probing to unearth all issues and receptive to all suggestions. They should address both the value proposition (the prize) as well as provide effective responses to all other consumer concerns.
The National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL) continues to support Smart Grid implementation and is developing guidance for defining region-specific Smart Grid implementation plans. This planning process depends on an effective involvement with the consumers in the regions evaluated. Visit the NETL Website site to learn more about this effort (see link below).