June 28, 2010 By Hilton Collins
Utility companies are racing to install digital technology that promises to make consumers more informed about their electricity usage -- an effort that in some cases is being funded by government grants.
Ironically a recent survey suggests that a majority of Americans aren't aware of these smart meters, the next-generation technology that makes it possible for two-way communication between households and utility companies. And they also don't know about the smart grid, the interconnected IT backbone and network that will make the smart meters possible.
In fact, 70 percent of Americans haven't even heard the phrase "smart grid" before, according to 1,000 online interviews done by marketing agency EcoAlign and Russell Research in May to gauge consumer perceptions and expectations of smart grid technology. The results were published in a report, Separating Smart Grid from Smart Meters? Consumer Perceptions and Expectations of Smart Grid.
According to EcoAlign's CEO Jamie Wimberly, the lagging awareness is mainly because there aren't enough smart meters installed yet for people to get an understanding, much less a smart grid as a whole to connect them to.
"They haven't heard about it yet because in their communities they don't have smart grid yet. There hasn't been a rationale or context in order to talk with Americans about what smart grid is," he said.
The 30 percent of respondents who said they knew of the smart grid are concerned about how much it will cost them, and how it will protect their privacy.
"Anything in the utility space doesn't really generate a lot of interest or excitement traditionally just because people get their bills, they pay them, and they don't really think too much about that," Wimberly said. "It's a pretty low engagement-type transaction or relationship."
He also believes the definitions of smart grids and smart meters haven't been packaged in consumer-friendly forms, so that people will pay attention to them. The technology itself, in his opinion, is "fairly technical, inward-looking and somewhat complex."
EcoAlign informed its survey respondents that the smart grid and smart meters allow people to view electricity usage and manage their bills and provides them with "new products and savings options, including management of renewable energy or energy saving devices in the home."
And one thing many respondents did understand is that the smart grid could allow them to save money on their power bills. When people were asked to use one word to describe how they felt about the smart grid, the biggest response was "savings" and other words that popped up often were "happy," "great" and "good." But when asked to provide one word to describe their biggest concerns, the top words were "cost," "expensive," "expense," "price," "privacy" and "control."
The smart grid has the power to deliver detailed energy-use information over the Internet to consumers and utility companies and private companies. But it could also create a new type of data that cyber-criminals could steal, much like financial or medical information.
"You can't pick up the paper these days without some kind of security breach or marketing issue, and that provides the overall context about how they're going to view their personal data coming off a smart grid. It's a part of a whole, and that whole is certainly moving fairly quickly toward greater security concerns," Wimberly said.
As smart meters are installed in more communities -- The Denver Post reported that 52 million smart meters would be installed across the country by 2015 -- they'll arrive at the homes of consumers who could have overblown expectations or exaggerated fears about them. Or the skeptics could, in fact, be right on target.
"I would not necessarily be messaging to your whole service territory, all the customers, about smart meter or smart grid when they're not going to even get it for years. I would be much more targeted and tactical about how you message to those people that are getting it," Wimberly said.
Photo by Tom Raftery. CC Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic