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Dumbfounded by “SmartMeters”

UPDATE: In late January, 2011, The New York Times published a good overview of how the controversy over smart meters has evolved since this post.

When utilities and the California Public Utilities Commission hatched plans to bolt a “smart meter” onto every household, the premise–and the promise–was that by digitally tracking just how much they were using and spending, customers would be able to make smarter choices about their energy use, ultimately saving money and cutting carbon emissions.

Smart meters are also a critical component of the nascent but much vaunted “smart grid,” in which household appliances and electric cars communicate with the vast power transmission network, and optimize things like when to recharge.

But as I report in my radio story for The California Report, many PG&E customers consider them more bane than boon (PG&E uses the trademark “SmartMeter,” whereas I may refer to them generically as “smart meters”).

Part of what’s riled up customers in Bakersfield and elsewhere in California is that PG&E hasn’t provided the devices to help watch the watts. Customers can go online to track their energy use over the last 24 hours, but that’s about it. And in the meantime, consumers are paying the cost of the new meters, and in some cases, higher bills that they blame on those meters.

Liz Keogh shows me the "SmartMeter" outside her Bakersfield home. Photo: Sasha Khokha

Liz Keogh shows me the "SmartMeter" outside her Bakersfield home. Her summer 2009 bills went up by half after it was installed. (Photo: Kristin Torres)

Julie Fitch, who heads the energy division of the California Public Utilities Commission, told me she thinks those real-time tracking gadgets won’t actually change consumer habits that much. “There’s a certain percentage of us who are interested in seeing what our energy use is at all times, and are fascinated by it, but I think it’s probably a small percentage in the grand scheme of things,” Fitch said.

Fitch says consumers will see more of an advantage from smart meters when home appliances can communicate with the devices.

“The reality is the grid right now is that it’s actually fairly dumb,” Fitch said. There’s a lot of manual decisions that need to be made in order to get the electricity from a generator to your house. I think what we’re looking at is a much more automatically controlled situation where appliances are automatically linked in with smart devices.”

For example, a fully integrated system could “decide” to run your clothes dryer at off-peak times, to relieve strain on the grid and possibly save money. But the whole idea of charging more for power at different times of day, known as peak pricing, troubles consumer advocates like Mark Toney. He heads The Utility Reform Network (TURN), a consumer advocacy group based in Oakland.

“We want to make sure this doesn’t unduly harm seniors, for instance, who are home bound,” Toney told me, pointing out that folks don’t have a choice sometimes about whether to run their air conditioner in the sweltering Central Valley heat.  “We don’t want them to be faced with the choice of being safe in their home or being subject to heat stroke because they shut off their AC because they can’t afford it,” he said.

Toney is also concerned that struggling customers are more likely to see their power shut off,  if they can’t keep up with the bills.  Smart meters allow utilities to turn off power remotely, without having to send a crew out to someone’s home–and that, he says, gives the company less incentive to negotiate payment plans.

The CPUC’s response? Utilities will still have to follow standard procedures, including advance notice of shut-offs.

Meanwhile an independent lab appointed by the CPUC continues to test PG&E SmartMeters to try to determine why some of them are malfunctioning. Some customers now have “side-by-side” test installations, with both analog and digital meters tracking electricity use in tandem. Strangely enough, the deployment of smart meters by Southern California’s two major utilities has gone relatively smoothly, with just a fraction of the complaints that PG&E has logged.

In my radio story, I interviewed Bakersfield Resident Liz Keogh, who saw her electric bill spike after her SmartMeter was installed.  Keogh is very energy-conscious; her home is a veritable showcase of energy-saving gadgetry. There could be any number of technical reasons why the new meters led to larger bills. Keogh developed her own personal theory (since disproved by independent tests), which she demonstrates in the video below, using some unlikely props. It’s a good example of the broad spectrum of consumer objections to the technology.

The Backlash Against “SmartMeters”

A "SmartMeter" mounted on a Fresno home. (Photo: Sasha Khokha)

A "SmartMeter" mounted on a Fresno home. (Photo: Sasha Khokha)

The California Public Utilities Commission says it will name a consultant sometime this week to start testing PG&E digital “SmartMeters,” which customers have blamed for spikes in their utility bills.

The announcement came after state Senator Dean Florez (D-Shafter) held a press conference in Bakersfield to question why the CPUC hadn’t taken action. Last October, the Commission agreed to quickly hire an independent contractor to test the meters.
Florez got involved in the flap last year after some of his Central Valley constituents saw their bills triple with the new meters, even if customers bought energy saving appliances, or in some cases, when no one was living at the home. “The biggest savings recognized so far has been to PG&E, who were able to lay off numerous meter readers,” said Florez in a press release.

PG&E has blamed the higher bills on rate increases and hot weather (not a new phenomenon in the Central Valley, where people coddle their air conditioners as if they were household pets).

The Bakersfield Californian reported last month that the backlash here in the Central Valley is catching the attention of industry analysts and utilities nationwide, who want to avoid a spreading backlash against the new technology.

One of the groups sounding a warning is the Division of Ratepayer Advocates, an independent consumer advocacy division of the CPUC. Last week, it advised the Commission to reject a Southern California Gas application to fund its own $1 billion smart meter program. DRA argued not that utility bills would spike with new digital meters, but that money could be better spent on energy efficiency measures and appliances. DRA says SoCalGas is overestimating how much customers will reduce their usage if they can see a digital display of how much energy they’re paying for.

Part of the concept behind smart meters is to help utilities with “demand response” strategies; providing timely feedback to customers, who can use their home computers to see exactly how and when they’re using power, customers might then alter their consumption patterns to avoid peak demand periods, and cut utility bills.

But some of that strategy has already backfired. The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported that a document PG&E filed with the CPUC says the advanced digital smart meters will let the company shut off power to more customers who fall behind on their bills, since they can do so without having to send a crew to a customer’s home. The meters may be smart but consumer advocates say it’s a dumb strategy that will make it easier for the utility giant to leave customers out in the cold.

Unlocking the Grid

Sarah Kass was the program producer for Unlocking the Grid, a collaboration between Climate Watch and KQED’s Quest program, which airs tonight at 7:30 on KQED Channel 9.

Wind Power: A Personal Perspective

By Sarah Kass

Last summer I visited the Netherlands, the original home of the windmill. Surprisingly, I saw hardly any of the quaint structures we associate with Dutch wind power. One hundred years ago Holland had about 10,000 wooden windmills dotting its landscape. Today, barely 10% remain. What I saw instead were high-tech wind turbines, white and spare and gracefully generating electricity with wind from the North Sea.

Many view these modern-day towers as an eyesore, but I see them as a sign of hope. Like giant flowers across a landscape, they symbolize for me a clean energy future. But wind power–and solar–have a handicap that fuels doubts that renewables will ever be more than a small percentage of U.S. power. These energy sources can’t be counted on when night falls or the wind subsides. Their inconsistent nature poses a problem for a world with an enormous appetite for electricity. If only excess power could be stored on a grand scale, it might solve many of our energy problems.

It isn’t that electrical energy isn’t currently storable, but as Andrew Tang, Senior Director of PG&E’s Smart Meter program points out, the current generation of batteries can’t store electricity at a price that’s cost-effective. But both he and Steve Berberich from California System Operators were optimistic about future storage possibilities. Tang described an experimental project that uses a sodium sulfur battery the size of an 18-wheeler trailer. The battery would be located next to a substation or somewhere in the network, and its stored power would be used during times of peak demand. He also talked about the future of plug-in electric cars, whose batteries could both store energy and in theory, put it back onto the grid when the car’s not in use.

Berberich envisioned several possibilities for storing excess power. He proposed converting it to hydrogen, which could be burned in a gas plant or could be used in a fuel cell. And he suggested using power to compress air, which could be injected into the ground and called upon when the wind’s not blowing and the sun’s not shining.

Whatever the final solution to storage, you can guarantee it will be a game changer in the renewable power industry. No longer will wind and solar be looked upon as unreliable. Hopefully this missing puzzle piece will go a long way toward helping us detach from our dependence on fossil fuels. But we’ll still be left with the challenge of getting all that clean, green energy onto the power grid. And you can be sure that environmental concerns, zoning, aesthetics, and cost will undoubtedly be cantankerous issues for years to come.

Watch the TV show online, and view exclusive web-only videos on energy-saving technologies for the home on Climate Watch’s Smart Grid special series page.

“Smart Grid” Getting Some Juice

img_3197_blogThe mainstream media’s beginning to catch up to the “smart grid” story; the grand plan to remake the nation’s electrical distribution system.

On Friday, NPR began a ten-part series; “Power Hungry: Reinventing the U.S. Electric Grid.” The reports will air on both of the network’s flagship programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered.

KQED’s Lauren Sommer set up the series earlier this month, with her backgrounder on emerging smart-grid technologies for Quest. Her report also includes a narrated slideshow, that includes a look inside PG&E’s version of “Mission Control.”

In March, Rob Schmitz previewed some of the challenges in his two-part series for Climate Watch, “Green Gridlock.”

And if you’re still “power hungry” after all that, Scott Pelley’s piece on the coal power industry is well worth a twelve-minute investment at the 60 Minutes website.