Monterey, Calif.--Pacific Gas & Electric isn't the only company in the electricity business trying to get consumers to get excited about smart meters.
The public reaction to meter roll-outs has largely ranged from indifference to outright hostility, executives from utilities and electricity services companies noted during a panel at the eMeter Smart Grid Leadership Conference taking place this week in Monterey. (Larsh Johnson, eMeter's founder, will speak at The Networked Grid sponsored by Greentech Media taking place May 18 and 19.)
Customer objection has sprung up in Texas and California. In Australia, time of use plans have been pushed back in an election year. The experience in Toronto has been a bit better. Since 2006, Toronto Hydro Electric System LTD has installed about 500,000 smart meters so far, and dovetailed the installation with a multi-pronged outreach program. In the Refrigerator Round Up, the utility offered to take away old fridges, while explaining how these hoary appliances can suck up a tremendous amount of energy. To explain the benefits of its time-of-use program, Toronto has put up signs on billboards and sent stickers to consumers explaining with a bar graph that shows that running a dryer will cost more than twice as much (9.9 cents per kilowatt hour) during peak hours than after 9 p.m. (4.4 cents).
There have been a few hitches along the way, explained Toronto's Karen France. The company initially sent mouse pads with its peak power pricing bar graphs out to consumers. People thought they were stickers and kept trying to slap them onto their appliances. Pricing changes -- Toronto Hydro moved the beginning of the cheapest power rates from 10 p.m. to 9 p.m. because consumers said they didn't want to wait till 10 to start their laundry -- so the printed collateral regularly has to be updated.
Security has also been an ongoing issue. After a breach, the company set up a security system in which consumers could apply for an access code to get their power consumption online. The access code, however, was sent by mail. People would get the access code a week later and forget what it was.
But do consumers care about time-of-use? Has it changed their behavior yet? "No, not really," France said.
Alliant Energy Corporation -- which has put 455,000 electric smart meters and 177 gas meters in Wisconsin and 526,000 electric meters and 234,000 gas meters in Minnesota and Iowa -- has taken a different tack. It isn't even describing consumer benefits yet, said senior manager of energy delivery technology Richard Potter. Instead, it has focused its public communications on how smart meters will improve operational efficiency. 98 percent of the Wisconsin meters can already handle automated billing.
Consumer outreach will begin soon -- and it can't hurt. Wisconsin already has a time-of-use program, but only around 1 percent of customers take advantage of it, Potter said. If anything, the smart meters should make it more palatable.
Potter had a few other interesting tidbits to offer, too. The company employs direct RF meters from Sensus because three years ago, it was the only company producing meters that could handle both gas and electric data. Unlike meters based on mesh networking, direct RF meters generally connect directly to a utility-owned base station. At most, the meters will bounce through a single adjacent meters. The company had earlier experimented with mesh networks -- in which data from one meter can hop through several meters before getting to the utility -- and the results weren't perfect.
Alliant has also had a few hitches with its relationship with Google. Google will install PowerMeter into consumers' homes in Wisconsin that will give consumers access to their power consumption data. Google, as a result, will have access to Alliant's data. However, they have yet to agree to reciprocate and give their data about consumer experience back to Alliant. (Ed note: Suggested motto: We're Not Evil. We Can't Vouch for You.)
The situation, though, will be rectified, Potter said. It is more of a software tools issue rather than recalcitrance on the search giant's part.
Still, despite these glitches and delays, one thing is clear: utilities and power providers definitely benefit from smart grid. CenterPoint in Texas, for example, is able to avoid 1,100 truck deployments a day with its smart meter network in Houston (310,000 installed over a 2-million-plus customer base.) The 100,000th avoided truck roll will occur this week, according to Carrie Morales, who helps manage the utility's smart grid group.
CenterPoint can also remotely cut off power in two hours' time if consumers don't pay their bill, and they can restore it within an hour once paid. The meter network also allows for more rapid and accurate settlements of bills, she said.