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.
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.
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.
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.