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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

At 1 p.m. sharp, when the electric rate skyrockets, she switches off her small window air-conditioning unit, keeping the windows shut to retain the pent-up cool air as long as possible. Despite chronic heart problems, she turns off the appliance during the heat of the day all summer long — her only effective way of reducing electric use. Otherwise, she fears, she couldn’t pay the bill.

Making it fair

AARP Maryland and the state’s Office of the People’s Counsel, a governmental consumer advocate, opposed BGE’s smart-metering proposal. And in June, the Maryland Public Service Commission sent BGE back to the drawing board, turning down the proposal to recoup the $835 million cost from consumers.

“This rush to install smart meters has gotten ahead of the policy discussions about how much it will cost to install them, how it’s going to affect consumers’ rates and how it could affect consumer health and safety,” Briesemeister said. “There are far too many unanswered questions in these proposals.”

BGE is now weighing its options for moving ahead with smart grid, company officials say. While awaiting the ruling, Mark Case, BGE vice president of strategy and regulatory affairs, said an upgraded power grid benefits everyone. “Even people who are already using power very efficiently and don’t have much to cut are going to see benefit from other customers’ savings,” he said, because greater efficiency eliminates the need for new power plants and keeps bills lower.

‘Almost inevitable’

Whether or not the country will switch over is not really an issue, according to Bracken Hendricks, an energy efficiency expert who has written a plan for moving America to the smart grid. Imperatives like rising energy costs, growing demand, and the need to offset climate change with renewable energy are too strong to ignore.

“The energy system has to move,” said Hendricks, senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal Washington think tank. “Sort of like the growth of the Internet, the information age is penetrating our energy systems.

“But how we do this is a big question — because there are technical questions, legalities and the necessity of benefiting as many people as possible.”

Citizens and consumer groups like AARP have a large role to play in helping settle regulatory issues like pricing, Hendricks said. One method to protect vulnerable populations would be to tailor programs similar to current lifeline plans — which provide for reduced rates to low-income older and disabled people — to work with time-of-use rate plans.

And, he said, the new rate plans could well result in savings for many older people able to adjust their use of electricity around afternoon peak times.

“The smart grid is almost inevitable,” Hendricks said. “The job is to figure out how to build a smart grid that will protect the elderly and vulnerable populations while it benefits everyone.”

Chris Carroll lives in Maryland.

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