Will Electric Cars Redeem the Smart Grid’s Reputation?

Michael Kanellos of Greentech Media has written a commentary suggesting that electric vehicles might be the silver bullet that overcomes public apathy and outright antagonism toward smart meters and the smart grid.

After explaining that utilities in the United States and Australia have discovered that consumers aren’t enamored of the concept of demand response or of the higher electricity bills that frequently accompany smart-meter rollouts, Kannellos writes the following:

Even avid greenies seem blasé. In Canada, Toronto Hydro has scrutinized the behavior of around 115,000 customers on time-of-use plans. Has cut rate power at night goosed them to shift their behavior? “No. Not really,” said Toronto’s Karen France during a meeting at eMeter’s customer event.

Matt Golden, co-founder of retrofitter/software vendor Recurve, told me recently that the company has installed some energy management dashboards in the homes of clients. After two weeks, the frequency of interaction with the dashboards drops considerably. There have been success stories — customers surveyed in a test conducted by Silver Spring Networks and Oklahoma Gas and Electric were overwhelmingly surprised to learn about their rate of energy consumption — but people seem to be dozing off on what is a very important technology.

So what’s the problem? Utilities and building management outfits are asking people to change their behavior to save pennies. PG&E’s residential rates range from 11 to 49 cents a kilowatt hour. Will you alter your laundry schedule to save 37 cents? Toronto’s spread is 9.9 cents at peak and 4.4 at night.

Indeed, Kanellos identifies the problem, in Toronto and elsewhere. But the problem runs deeper than that, and Kanellos, to his credit, addresses it.

A little later in his commentary, Kanellos writes that consumers are wary of smart meters, and of the larger smart grid, because they suspect strongly that utilities will be the only parties to benefit from them. There’s some truth to that assessment, too, especially when one considers utilities’ operational costs savings: no more truck rolls for meter reading or for shutting down or activating service, plus the capacity to shave peak demand and to avoid having to add costly electricity-generation capacity.

For the consumer? Well, the benefits aren’t so clear, and certainly not as compelling. In some jurisdictions, careful consumer ministrations to smart meters mean only the difference between small increases in electricity bills and larger hikes.

Kanellos thinks electric cars will enhance the consumer appeal of the smart grid. To his way of thinking, electric cars are destined to be a huge hit with consumers, who will come to understand that the smart grid, including charging stations at home and out in the wider community, is essential to the sustenance of their new vehicles. At that point, Kanellos believes, consumers will grasp the importance and value of the smart grid, and they’ll buy into the program the utilities are pushing.

Maybe Kanellos is right. Perhaps electric vehicles will rescue the smart grid from public apathy and infamy. Then again, electric cars will not become ubiquitous overnight. A year from now, even a few years from now, not everybody will have one.

In the meantime, the braintrusts at utilities, regulators, and smart-grid vendors will have to devise other means of engaging, rather than alienating, electricity consumers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s