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Why You Should Stop Worrying And Learn To Love The Smart Grid

There was one recent positive survey, but test after test has found that people aren’t so psyched when smart meters arrive in their home. They may not have a choice.

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There are actually two electrical grids being built in the U.S. right now: the “smarter grid,” which is evolving around today’s outdated infrastructure, and the fully networked, Internet-like smart grid of the future that is much discussed. Both promise an attractive bargain: save money and electricity by radically boosting efficiency and reliability, provide dynamic energy-saving measures and data analysis, and enable massive adoption of electric vehicles and clean renewables.

It also makes people happy, according to a Texas survey
recently conducted by the DOE and energy sector firms. Three quarters
of Texan households given smart meters that displayed electricity usage
data in the home changed their electricity consumption behavior as a
result, mostly by turning off lights or adjusting thermostats. Perhaps
even more telling, more than 90% reported being satisfied with
the meters, and 97% will continue using them (those extra 7% are gluttons for punishment).

But that survey may be the outlier. In many other states, there is a backlash against the meters, driven by arguments that the benefits may not always be such a
win for consumers, reports the Institute for Electric Efficiency (IEE). Texas
recently rolled out its meters only to temporarily suspend its program
after some consumers’ rates doubled or tripled, most likely due to a
calibration error. In Canada, the time-of-day pricing (where one pays
more depending on peak consumption hours) may have raised average
electricity costs, making ratepayers less enthusiastic. It’s hard to explain to people that they need to pay more because their electricity was artificially undervalued before. They tend to want it to stay undervalued. Other complications–such as worries in California about radio frequency meters causing “migraine headaches, heart palpitations and nausea,” and Vermonter’s privacy concerns about utilities gathering “detailed information on how and when a customer uses electricity“–are complicating creation of the smart grid.

But the complaints and fears are unlikely to stop it. Virtually every U.S. household is expected to have smart meters (one feature of the smart grid) by the end of the decade, according to the IEE, while engineers and programmers are steadily transforming the electrical grid into the world’s largest “networked network” with enthusiastic support from the Department of Energy (DOE).

The risks associated with waiting to make this transition, argues the DOE, systemically “grow in size, scale and complexity” the longer we wait. With electricity demand set to double by 2050 and blackouts threatening (three of the five massive blackouts of the past 40 years in the U.S. occurred in the last decade alone), the smart grid makes sense.

[Image: Flickr user respres]

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Reach Michael J. Coren via Twitter or email.

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About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment. His favorite topics are wicked problems -- and discoveries such as how dung beetles rely on the light of the Milky Way to navigate (and all that says about the human condition on Earth)

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