Saturday, June 12, 2010

Post # 22 - Boston Consulting's Smart Meter Study: A Mixed Bag

Last month, the Boston Consulting Group, a global management consulting firm, announced the results of a smart meter survey conducted in December 2009. BCG’s study is mixed bag. On the one hand, the study finds evidence that consumers are prepared to use smart meters – and new technologies that smart meters can enable – to manage energy usage and reduce costs. But BCG also finds a current low consumer awareness of smart metering, a large degree of consumer suspicion of power companies, and the lack of effective communication between power companies and their customers. Moreover, BCG estimates that for utilities to recognize a “winning” return on smart meter investment, from 20 to 30 percent of a utility's customers will have to reduce their overall consumption or peak demand by 15 to 20 percent.

BCG surveyed roughly 1,700 U.S. consumers, of whom (a) 75 percent resided in zip codes with smart meter deployment and (b) 25 percent resided in the same states but in areas without smart meter deployment. BCG notes that this concentration necessarily “skews” the results toward California and Texas. BCG also screened respondents for household income greater than $25,000 and for primary or “at least occasional payers of residential power bills.”

In addition, this was an online survey. Although BCG doesn’t make the point, online surveys may somewhat skew the results to “computerphiles” while leaving out “computerphobes.”

With those potential limitations in mind, the BCG study makes six findings concerning consumer attitudes:

First, there is low overall customer awareness of smart meters and their potential benefits. More than 50 percent of customers have never heard of a smart meter and its benefits, and only 15 percent were “very aware.” Interestingly, awareness levels were not affected by whether there is in-region deployment of smart meters.
Second, consumers in fact generally believe in the potential for smart meters to help them reduce energy consumption. However, BCG finds that they need to be further educated about reliability, privacy, and pricing.
Third, while 40 percent of the respondents "just want power," 60 percent displayed “green attitudes” or “environmental concerns.” Of those “green” respondents, moreover, the vast majority are also cost-conscious, i.e., “interested in the smart meter's cost-conscious conservation potential.”
Fourth, those “cost-conscious greens” have more negative attitudes regarding their power company: fifty percent believe that home power bills are relatively large, while 40 to 45 percent believe that their power company is not interested in reducing consumption “and that the power company is not on their side.”
Fifth, a majority of the respondents were interested in services that can be provided using smart meters as an “enabling technology.” Moreover, they consider utilities to be credible providers of such services.
Sixth, reaching customers with information on smart meters will be difficult, “as few consumers actually read or recall any power-company communications.”

BCG believes that utilities are in a “good starting position” since many consumers are intrigued by the energy-saving capabilities that smart meters would afford. Sixty-two percent of the survey respondents agreed that they would actively log onto an Internet site to check their power consumption on at least a weekly basis. Moreover, 56 percent agreed that they would set their thermostat by time of day based on consumption and pricing information from smart meters.

At the same time, however, BCG estimates that “from 20 to 30 percent of a utility's customers will have to reduce their overall consumption or peak demand by 15 to 20 percent to make smart meters a winning proposition.” Falling short of that threshold, BCG believes, “will likely prevent the utility from delivering the necessary return on investment.”

BCG's press release for the study can be found here. As noted in the press release, a summary of the findings and conclusions can be obtained directly from the company (I obtained a copy, upon which this post is based, but don't seem able to attach it).

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