Fast Company

A Problem For Smart Meters: People Don't Understand Electricity

The general public has no idea how much they pay for electricity or how to use less, undermining the central premise of smart meters and hindering their adoption.

Smart power meters are, in theory, supposed to help with everything from electric vehicle adoption (low electricity rates encourage people to charge up at specific times) to bringing more renewable energy on the grid (pricing will vary based on when it is available). But smart meter implementation hinges on the idea that consumers actually understand their electricity use. According to a new survey, they don't.

It's not news that smart meter customers don't yet care enough to obsessively track their electricity use--that's presumably why both Google PowerMeter and Microsoft Hohm are going by the wayside. But a lack of interest isn't the problem; it's a lack of understanding.

IBM's survey of over 10,000 people in 15 countries revealed that 30% of people surveyed don't know what the term "dollar per kwh" means (or the equivalent in their country), over 60% of people don't know what a smart grid or smart meter is, and over half don't know if their utility has a clean energy program. If customers don't even know how they're paying for electricity, it's difficult to use smart meters to save.

And here's the thing: IBM's survey found that 61% of people who are familiar with energy technology and pricing have a favorable view of smart metering, while only 43% of people with minimal knowledge view smart grid technologies in a positive light. Once people understand what the technology does, they think highly of it--and once that happens, it becomes more likely that they will pay attention to variable electricity pricing. Because who doesn't want to save a couple bucks by running the dishwasher at an off-peak hour?

Some utilities have better smart grid education than others. When a smart meter was installed in my building in San Francisco, a PG&E representative knocked on my door to tell me what was going on. The utility also sent me a pamphlet explaining the intricacies of having a smart meter, and a company website provides even more detailed information. Just offering these simple educational tools could help people who don't know how smart metering works. Communication is key, and without it, utility efforts to roll out millions of smart meters will all be for naught.

[Image: Flickr user cktzeng]

Reach Ariel Schwartz via Twitter or email.

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  • Charles W Davis

    Inside Nine. Be aware that we don't understand the "...biological danger of pulsed microwave radiation 24/7...." It is obvious that you don't understand the Smart Meters, they transmit only a few seconds at a time, over RF frequencies. They are outside of your home. If you are concerned that your children will be exposed, get rid of their cell phones, iPads, tablets, TVs, wireless routers, wireless laptop computers, electronic games, etc. These are all inside your home, possibly in the child's hands. No, you won't do that as you have become used to those products and accepted the exposure that these devices provide. Besides the kids would drive you bananas.

  • Balaji Natarajan

    Yes. Communication is key, but keeping it simple and importantly ensuring that there is "value" being provided by the product (smart meters) is more critical. It is important to recognize that the area of energy efficiency has not been mainstream in a highly developed/industrialized society like ours - for all the good reasons. So, as a customer - my intentions, habits of how i use my energy on a daily basis is a auto-tuned in certain ways over the past few decades. Now it is a tall order to expect that decades-old behavior pattern to change just because of installing a few new technology-enabled tools (smart meters) in my home. It is more practical to expect gradual change in behavior over a time-period - IF i'm given enough communication about what is being installed, what i need to do, how it will *benefit* me in the short-term and long-term. Then I would be more inclined to not just read, but rather *engage* myself in the communications being shared by the utilities.

  • Daniel

    The electric companies don't tell you about the nasty pulses these meters put out.  They do this over 22,000 times a day at 20ms which adds up to about 45 seconds.  These pulses go right through buildings and other things including the human body. Nobody has done research on this type of waveform, (pulse) and until they do, I am not allowing a smart meter on my house.  They will have to throw me in jail before putting one on. 

  • rktect

    I was under the impression these used a form of WiMax for long-range WiFi transmission. Do you have any information or links on these 'pulse' transmissions?

  • Renee Lertzman

    Increasingly, social scientists are highlighting the 3 dimensions to "engagement" with sustainability, conservation, etc -- cognitive, affective and behavioral (cf. Lorenzoni et al, 2007).  It is a welcome replacement of the 'information deficit' model - if people know more, they will act. We simply know this not to be the case. Or the whole case.

    This survey, as many others, only highlights the first of these dimensions: cognitive.

    As important as it is to measure and gauge understandings of complex phenomena such as energy, climate change, and so on, it is only one part of a very complex picture. Let's think about the other 2 for a moment: affective and behavioral. While we tend to focus on the cognitive-behavioral levers, we (researchers, thinkers, journalists, industry folks) often ignore what may emerge as the most important: the affective.

    Affect is defined differently but essentially it means how we feel about certain issues, topics, objects, relationships, activities. It's not necessarily conscious (like emotions) but felt, as in anxiety, fear, excitement, etc. We have an 'affective' response to a shiny new iPad, a contaminated riverbank, the sight of a polar bear on an ice floe. This precedes and informs our cognitive and behavioral functions.

    I'd be far more interested to see how people actually feel - yes, feel - about what energy means in our lives, learning more about its function, flows, and so forth. Because I suspect, as many others already know in clinical psychology, that our responses to such things are hardly rational - and may inform what we do with the data, when we eventually learn it.

    The 'information deficit model' has long been outmoded in environmental education and sciences, as a faulty model for 'why people are not doing more.' We know now, it's not only about having the information and the knowledge: it's what we do with it. And that's where affect comes in.

    -- Renee Lertzman

  • Mark Kennedy

    In our deregulated state of Texas we pay a flat rate fee per kwh regardless of time of day.  There are no incentives for us to use our smart meters.  It is to a point now where we feel it is just another fee added on to the other long lists of fees and taxes that are currently in play with the telephone companies.  Yes there was a breakdown in the communication by the distribution companies who no longer feel that education is neccessary.

  • Chevas Balloun

    Electricity is such an old utility, there is no precedent to educate customers by the power companies. The meters themselves need a significant UI update. They are some of the most frustrating things to decipher.

  • rktect

    In Canada, smart meters have no UI - they are simply measuring devices for the purposes of billing usage by time and peak-periods (for the utility companies to make more money). The average bill in Canada increases 25% upon the installation of a smart meter and time-of-use billing.

    Its too bad PowerMeter and Hohm failed - as they were designed to provide detailed usage information to consumers to make better consumption decisions.

  • rktect

    Perhaps the average person can't speak hydro lingo, but almost everyone realizes the concept of using less - and why its important to minimize usage in today's world.

    Core education about usage is important, but utilities should not expect consumers to learn about grid technology or smart meters. If anything, this survey shows that the utility's marketing material is way too over-complex. The simple message is use less, and/or use at these non-peak times.

    If you go see an accountant or lawyer, do they teach you finance or law? No. Are the water or natural gas company teaching people about how these are delivered? No. Why should electricity be any different? If I want to know - which some people do - we can find out.

  • Ryan Kohler

    To play devil's advocate, it would be much easier for people to understand how they use electricity if they had immediate feedback on how they were using it; in fact that would be the smart meter's raison d'être

  • rktect

    I totally agree Ryan.

    People need information about usage in order to make usage-based decisions.

    All we get is one number on our hydro bill - the number of KwH we consumed - which is completely unactionable.

    Utilities could provide a monthly report of what was used and when - and possibly suggest optimization strategies. But a smart meter doesn't know what appliances I'm running - only the total usage at any given time.

    Or it could be better availability of smart appliances which internally know the best time to operate - so I put my laundry in, and the machine turns itself on during the optimal time.

    However, this usage data is not available to consumers as of today, nor are smart appliances readily available at a reasonable price point. Until both of these happen - I wouldn't expect to see consumers making significant changes in behavior. Not because they don't want to, because they lack information to do so.

  • Guest

    We also understand the biological danger of pulsed microwave radiation 24/7 and the unnecessary compilation of enormous quantities of personal data. Yeah, when I was kid they used to x-ray your feet to fit you with shoes. The pictures were interesting but somehow the dangers of extra radiation were just ignored. We don't need the wireless or the incredible quantities of personal info. Get real!!