Are We heading for a Smart Grid ‘Inconvenient Truths’ Experience?

There is something more anxious in the voice and writings of the smart grid crowd these days.  It is fear. You can tell it from the changed tone in their messages.  There is less swagger and bravado.  But there is also more complaining that utilities as the primary catalysts for smart meter implementation spurred on by Federal Stimulus money are bungling the job of customer education and thus making it much more difficult for smart meter vendors to keeps sales momentum going in the face of such opposition.

Both the trade press and the mainstream media seem to have more coverage about the problems of smart meters, customer complaints, health concerns and a range of issues.  Here’s a recent sample:

Utilities Still Stupid About Smart Grid, FORBES, Willian Pentland , January 5, 2011. “Despite growing consumer interest in the “smart grid,” many – if not most – electric utilities in the United States appear to be woefully unprepared to educate the masses about the substance behind the slogans,” the story says.  It goes on to report on the results of a Purdue University student doing a survey of utility calls centers asking each the same questions about the smart meters the utility was installing.  The problem is only one-third of the utility call centers could answer all the questions about the smart grid or smart meters.

Perceptions about Privacy on the Smart Grid is the name of a new study released in December 2010 by the Ponemon Institute, a research organization based in Traverse City, Mich. The more customers know about smart meters the more they worry how the smart grid data could threaten their personal safety and reveal personal details about their lifestyle with concerns ranging from misuse of personal information by the government (53% of those surveyed) and failure to adequately protect personal information (51%). Respondents seem to be most worried about.

Pacific Gas and Electric is installing 13,000 smart meters a day and expects to have 10 million of the meters deployed by 2012, Kevin Dasso, senior director of strategy and regulation at the utility told an industry conference recently.  But PG&E has been plagued more than any other utility with customer complaints about smart meters beginning with an embarrassing public relations flap in Bakersfield with angry customers waving their high utility bills.  Marin County’s Board of Supervisors persists in trying to ban smart meter implementation and protesters about electromagnetic fields have adopted a Code Pink kind of in your face strategy to stop smart meters installations including two old ladies who got arrested in Marin recently for blocking a PG&E smart meter installers truck with TV cameras rolling for maximum impact.

www.refusesmartmeters.com .  On  California Route 37 on the way to Napa where all the tourists and wine sippers can see it is a huge billboard with this website on it encouraging everyone to check it out.  It is not clear who is behind this website but it is chock full of information on how to frustrate PG&E’s smart meter efforts and a link to the EMF Safety Network that is relentlessly preaching the its evils.

http://emfsafetynetwork.org/ .  These folks are true believers.  That is they believe there are significant health risks from exposure to electromagnetic fields from smart meters and they are relentless in pursuing their agenda.  The health effects from smart meters has been debunked by California Council and Science and Technology but still the protests continue to be pressed.

Are Utilities Making Progress in Smart Grid Education? That was the question put to readers on Smart Grid News Talk seeking input about topics.  The feedback was that utilities are making slow progress—not a home run but not quite a black eyes.  Then there was the Jesse Berst article comparing America’s fragmented utility market for smart meters with Europe’s more integrated buying cooperation.  Jesse suggests American utilities will spend $2 billion more than the Europeans for smart meters.

So what?

The smart meter vendors are getting testy because customers keep asking questions about the impacts of installing the meter on the side of their house.  Utilities have underestimated the customer reaction.  Regulators are flatfooted and like deer in the headlights over how to respond.  Science reports saying you smart phone is riskier than your smart meter just isn’t cutting it.

Customers care more about the impact on their utility bills.  Smart meters are getting the blame for the cumulative costs of paying for the sum of renewable energy, emissions reduction, smart meters and the need for rate cases to keep investors dividends and returns competitive with the alternatives.  These other issues are often a distraction but the cumulative impact of the piling on has vendors nervous that utilities will start holding them accountable for customer education in the next wave of smart meter deployment.

You remember how that game is played—-Bring me someone to hang!   Yikes!