Saturday, May 28, 2011

Post # 70 - Study: For Many Consumers, Smart Grid Remains an "Empty Vessel"

Last year, EcoAlign, a strategic marketing agency, released a study finding that approximately 70 percent of Americans are not familiar with the term "smart grid."

Now, one year later, EcoAlign has released a follow-up study, Consumer Cents for Smart Grid, that finds that "customer awareness has barely budged over the past year."

EcoAlign conducted 1,000 online interviews in April 2011, with the sample (in the company's words) "balanced to match the U.S. population by age, gender, region and ethnicity." The primary objective was to test consumer perceptions and attitudes in regard to smart grid.

Extrapolating from the online interviews, EcoAlign concludes that only 35 percent of Americans are aware of the phrase “smart grid” in 2011 (compared to 31 percent in its 2010 study).

Moreover, when asked for the first word that came to mind when thinking about “smart grid”, consumers generally had a "largely functional (non- emotional) response." The most commonly mentioned word -- "by far," according to EcoAlign -- was “electricity." Other words and ideas were mentioned at much lower levels, and include “resource management,” “intelligent,” “efficient,” “energy,” “computer,” “energy efficient,” “tracks usage,” “technology,” and “green.”

Based on these responses, EcoAlign concludes that "Smart grid, for many Americans, remains an empty vessel that is yet to be filled with any value or significance."

At the same time, the study suggests that consumers could be sold on those elements of smart grid technology that could lead to lower energy costs.

EcoAlign finds that its respondents were extremely concerned or very concerned about the potential for rising utility bills -- 78 percent in 2011 as compared to 74 percent in 2010. In terms of attitudes towards their personal energy consumption, the most frequently chosen statement was "I am most concerned with saving money on my utility bill" (43 percent).

Among those who would like to receive suggestions from their utility company in terms of how to reduce their bill, they felt that in the short term "smart grid" would be most likely to help improve their utility's service by providing better billing and energy consumption information (34 percent) and more energy management options (30 percent).

Eight out of ten thought it would be extremely or very valuable to find out how smart grid would impact their bill, new pricing options that would give them the opportunity to save money, and what smart grid technology would cost.

While one fourth of consumers would allow the utility to control their high-use appliances automatically, another quarter would like notifications so they can make the adjustments themselves. An additional one third expressed willingness if the price paid was sufficient, while only 16 percent said they would never allow this.

At the same time, when respondents were asked to use one word to describe their biggest concern relative to smart grid, they indicated their top concerns included "privacy," "control/loss of control," "security," and even fear of "big brother." Moreover, when asked who should have access to their detailed energy consumption data, 65 percent responded "only the customer."

Beyond these specific findings, EcoAlign notes that, to date in the smart grid area, the utility industry largely has focused on "deployment and realizing benefits on the utility side of the meter." Going forward, however, EcoAlign concludes that the benefits of "leveraging real-time energy consumption data" can only be achieved if utilities and energy suppliers embrace consumer engagement.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Post # 69 - Maine PUC Allows Consumers to "Opt Out" from Smart Meters

The Maine Public Utilities Commission last week voted to require Central Maine Power to offer an opt-out program for customers who choose not to have a standard smart meter installed as part of CMP’s smart meter program.

Under the Maine PUC decision, Customers in CMP service territory will have two new opt-out options: the availability of the smart meter with its transmitter turned off and the ability to retain the existing (or analog) meter.

The customer who chooses an opt-out option will pay the associated costs of that option: a) smart meter with transmitter off will carry an initial charge of $20.00 and a monthly charge of $10.50; b) existing analog meter option will carry the initial charge of $40.00 and a monthly charge of $12.00. In order to address concerns of low-income customers, those who are eligible for Low Income Heating Assistance (LIHEAP), will be charged only 50% of the cost of their chosen opt-out option. CMP is required to develop and implement a smart meter opt-out communication plan intended to inform customers about the program during the company’s deployment of their smart meter program.

CMP started installing the advanced meters in the fall of 2010 and about a third of the utility's customers now have them, according to a news report from Maine Public Broadcasting Network. But it didn't take long after the installations began for some CMP customers to loudly protest the meter deployment – in a scenario very much like the backlash against Pacific Gas & Electric in California in and led to a similar state commission-mandated opt out program.

CMP had strongly objected to offering any options, saying they would be costly and dilute the effectiveness of the technology for the vast majority of customers who want smart meters. In the end, the company chose not to appeal the decision and deferred to the PUC, saying it was up to regulators to set the policy for smart meters.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Post # 68 - New CPUC Smart Meter Privacy Rules

In late 2009. the California Public Utilities Commission ruled that the big three investor-owned utilities in California -- Pacific Gas & Electric, Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric -- would have to provide their customers with real-time residential usage data through smart meters by the end of 2011 (to see the order, click here). In addition, the CPUC directed PG&E, SCE and SDG&E to also provide that usage data on a “near real time basis” to companies that those consumers choose to work with.

In a new draft decision, he CPUC has now taken the process a step further by outlining the privacy rules for how that data can be shared and stored between the utilities and other companies that customers choose to work with.

The information they have to hand out includes bill-to-date, bill forecast data, projected month-end tiered rate, a rate calculator, and notifications to customers as they cross rate tiers.

Because the CPUC can’t directly control the third party companies that consumers may contract with, the CPUC created rules for devices that will access the data from the smart meter.

For consumers who want to share their information with an outside company, a utility tariff will require that any home area network device that is “locked” to a certain third party, which will start transferring information from the smart meter, must be in compliance with the CPUC requirements. The utilities have six months to create those tariffs. They also must start a pilot study within six months to provide real-time or near-real-time pricing information to their customers.

For devices that aren’t locked into a particular third party, the utility will be charged with making consumers aware of “the potential uses and abuses of usage data should the customer forward or otherwise provide the data to another entity.”

Although companies such as demand response giant EnerNOC would like data access as soon as possible and argue that existing California legislation provides adequate privacy protection, see here, consumer advocates and others, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, are calling for even more stringent measures.

The decision by the CPUC also leaves some ambiguity over what to do if customers pick a device that bypasses the smart meter. However, the easiest (and cheapest) way to get the information will be to go through the meter, so at the end of the day, startups and consumer giants alike will probably choose to take the data straight from the horse’s mouth -- even if it means playing by the CPUC's rules.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Post # 67 - PG&E Smart Meter Redux: Utility Will Replace Smart Meters, Issue Customer Refunds

In the continuing saga of Pacific Gas and Electric Company's smart meter roll-out in Northern California, PG&E has announced that it will replace a small number of the smart meters supplied by smart meter giant Landis+Gyr due to what the utility terms a "rare defect" in the meters.

According to PG&E, Landis+Gyr has determined the error affects fewer than 1,600 of the two million meters it supplied to PG&E. The utility will replace the meters at no cost to customers and issue full refunds to customers who received inaccurate bills. The average refund will be about $40 per customer. PG&E will also issue a $25 credit for customer inconvenience and offer a free in-home energy audit to affected customers.

Landis+Gyr meters with the defect occasionally run fast when experiencing a narrow band of high temperatures, resulting in a miscalculation of energy bills. The problem, which according to PG&E affects less than 0.08 percent of the smart meters supplied to the utility by Landis+Gyr, was discovered by PG&E's quality assurance program and the advanced diagnostics available through the SmartMeter technology. If any additional meters malfunction, PG&E states that diagnostic signals will flag the meters for immediate replacement.

PG&E will share the technical analysis of the meter issue with the California Public Utilities Commission for its review, and with the American National Standards Institute, which approves the relevant testing standards for the metering industry.