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Wise Up About the Smart Grid

Big changes are coming to an electric meter near you. Will it benefit everyone?

SOCIAL CHANGE environment

— Rob Bartee/Monsoon/Photolibrary/Corbis

Behavior modification

Smart meters are just one potential aspect of a smart grid, but once in place, they could lead to major, and potentially troubling, changes for electric consumers. A normal meter typically gets read monthly. Smart meters provide continuous information about electricity consumption.
This enables utilities to enact what’s widely seen as a central function of the future smart grid: higher charges for electricity at times of the day when generating capacity is nearly maxed out. It can be seen as behavior modification encouraging consumers to use technology and lifestyle changes to spread electricity usage more evenly throughout the day. There are indisputable advantages—economic and environmental—of doing so.

“Our whole system is engineered for these peak periods, and about 20 percent of the entire grid capacity exists only to manage a few hours a year of peak load,” NIST’s Arnold said. “If you could spread out that peak load, you could get far more from existing infrastructure.”

Trimming the peaks, when strained utilities run most inefficiently, can greatly cut greenhouse gas outputs. Just as vitally from a consumer standpoint, spreading the load more can also eliminate the need to raise electric rates to build expensive new power plants to handle peak events.

Smart for everyone?

But the moves nationwide toward smart metering are a cause for growing concern among consumer and citizens’ rights groups.
Some of the questions are about the effect of constant metering on privacy—do the smart technologies that give consumers and electric companies new ways to monitor power usage also make us more vulnerable to nefarious monitoring?

The potential for constantly varying electric rates controlled by utilities is causing even more worry. In states like Maryland and Colorado, smart grid and smart metering projects have been stopped or put on hold by questions about how the projects could affect disabled and low-income populations.

Smart grid proposals like one in 2009 by Baltimore Gas & Electric (BGE) in Maryland could cost each household hundreds of dollars for meter installation and have very unequal effects on monthly bills, said Janee Briesemeister, a legislative representative for AARP specializing in utility matters.

Higher-income, higher-usage customers in big homes with lots of appliances have many options to reduce electric usage, Briesemeister said. But the same pricing could hammer lower-income people in small homes or apartments. Many have few ways to cut consumption that don’t impact their quality of life and health.

August 2020

It’s early afternoon on the same sweltering day 10 years from now. As the temperature nears 100 and electricity demand skyrockets, the advanced communications capability newly built into the electric grid takes control of air-conditioning units and smart appliances throughout the region, turning them down, and even temporarily switching them off from time to time to reduce peak demand.

In her central city apartment, a woman in her 70s, disabled by a serious heart ailment, moves frozen water bottles from her freezer to her refrigerator in hopes of reducing the appliance’s energy use during the peak pricing period. The 15-year-old appliance that came with the apartment uses a lot of electricity and can’t talk to the new smart electric grid. The landlord, who doesn’t pay the electric bill, has little interest in upgrading.

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