Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Post # 41 - British Study Suggests That Smart Meters Are No Silver Bullet

Following up on my prior post on the recent smart meter study by the Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands, a new British study likewise suggests that smart meters may not necessarily deliver hoped-for energy consumption reduction.

The study, "Smart Metering: What Potential for Household Engagement," was prepared by Dr. Sarah Darby of the University of Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute. Dr. Darby examined motives and outcomes to date of smart metering programs in California, Italy, Sweden and the Netherlands, among others. She finds that there in fact is little hard evidence about smart meters can actually achieve.Her research shows that smart meters are being rolled out for different reasons in difference regions. In Italy and Sweden, for example, the focus has been on reducing fraud and providing accurate billing. In the Netherlands, Ireland and the UK, and to a lesser extent California, the intention is for smart metering to help users improve their energy efficiency and reduce demand. But in some of these regions, notably the Netherlands and California, efforts have been plagued by customer resistance to the gathering, monitoring and storing of personal data.

Dr. Darby believes that if the roll-out is not handled right, demand reduction will not necessarily flow from an improvement in information. In her judgment, what appears to count more than the smart meter itself is the message energy companies provide about energy use over time and trustworthy, relevant comparisons.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Post # 40: Dutch Report Suggests Smart Meters Are No Silver Bullet

A recently concluded Dutch study suggests that smart meters and similar home energy monitoring devices may not be the silver bullet that guarantees substantial reductions in home energy use. In particular, the report – entitled “Home Energy Monitors: Impact Over the Medium-Term and prepared by a research team from the Delft University of Technology concludes that initial savings may not be sustainable over the long term.

The study team examined the behaviors of households where “Home Energy Management Systems" – which the report defines as “intermediary devices that can visualize, monitor and/or manage domestic gas and/or electricity consumption” – had been installed on a trial basis. The goal was to see whether the participants sustained changes in electricity consumption over 15 months. In particular, the team wanted to find out if early reductions in energy consumption were continued over a longer period.

Participation in the study – and the required installation of the “HEMS” devices – was voluntary. The team monitored a total of 304 participants over four months, and then gave them the option of retaining the monitor. Those who kept the monitor were surveyed again 11 months later.

The findings showed that there were initial savings in electricity consumption of an average of 7.8% over the first four months, but these savings were not sustained over the medium to long term. At the same time, the study also found that some people were more receptive to energy saving behavior changes than others and quickly developed new habits, giving them continuing substantial savings.

The authors believe that that more research is needed not just into the design and usability of home monitoring devises, but also on social science issues and contextual factors. The basic conclusion: installing energy monitors alone will not necessarily reduce electricity consumption.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Post # 39 - Mixed Findings for Pacific Gas and Electric

A recently concluded investigation of the performance of smart meters installed by Pacific Gas & Electric finds that, while the meters are accurately measuring energy use, there are flaws in the way PG&E has handled customer complaints and monitored data transmitted by the new digital meters.

The investigation, conducted by Structure Consulting Group LLC on behalf of the California Public Utilities Commission, was mandated by the CPUC in response to a surge in complaints that blamed digital meters for high bills and other problems. The CPUC issued Structure’s report on September 2, 2010.

The report concludes that while PG&E's digital smart meters are accurate, the utility nonetheless has not done enough to educate customers about the switch. Moreover, the report finds that PG&E has not adequately responded to the full suite of data it gets from the meters.

Structure states that it tested 611 of PG&E's advanced meters, which were made by Landis+Gyr, and found that all met industry standards for accuracy (accuracy to plus or minus 2%, meaning usage must be recorded within a band that is 98% to 102% of the amount actually used). Structure also found the older electromechanical meters that are being replaced are less reliable than new digital meters. Of the 147 old meters tested, accuracy was 96%.

Structure also reviewed 1,378 electric Smart Meter complaints and performed in-depth customer interviews, finding issues with PG&E customer service management and adherence to industry best practices. For example, customer questions regarding Smart Meters and individual customer usage patterns were not effectively addressed by PG&E. In some cases, customers experienced multiple cancelled bills followed by re-billing, which exacerbated customer confusion and frustration.

In addition, customers indicated to Structure that there was a lack of communication and notification from PG&E about their smart meter installation. The report also said that the CPUC's own handling of certain consumer complaints created confusion for the customer when the CPUC deemed the complaint closed even though the customer was still not satisfied with or did not understand PG&E's resolution of their complaint.

At the same time it released Structure’s report, the CPUC issued a press release reflecting Structure’s mixed findings. Thus, CPUC President Michael R. Peevey said that while he was “happy to hear that PG&E's Smart Meters are functioning properly,” he was also “disturbed by PG&E's lack of customer service and responsiveness. [The CPUC] will ensure that PG&E improves their customer service, and we will also continue to improve our own complaint handling processes." Similarly, Commissioner Dian Grueneich said "the report is encouraging in terms of the performance of actual meter hardware. However, I am very concerned about PG&E's performance in terms of industry best practices and how in some of the best practices areas, PG&E's performance has actually declined."

So it appears that while PG&E can point to the potential of its state-of-the-art digital meters, the utility still has a lot of work to do,