With electric utilities still trying to get a handle on what their customers want, fresh market research has just been released that suggests that a large segment of the population has generally positive views toward smart grid initiatives, but that a whole lot of American consumers simply have no idea what a smart grid is. These findings indicate that the market is receptive toward smart grids, but public support for infrastructure changes will likely require a fairly comprehensive education campaign.

The Consumer Pulse and Market Segmentation Study was conducted by Market Research International for the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative, a nonprofit tasked with promoting and educating the public on the benefits of grid modernization. The national survey is the latest aimed at quantifying what makes electric consumers tick. The final tally split consumers into five distinct groups. From the SGCC:

- Concerned Greens (31 percent) are most protective of the environment and supportive of smart grid initiatives. They are highly likely to participate in energy management programs.

- Young America (23 percent) doesn't know much about smart grid but is interested in learning about its potential for environmental benefits and cost savings.

- Easy Street (20 percent) consumers have the highest income of any segment and are reluctant to change their personal behaviors.

- DIY & Save (16 percent) consumers are frugal and have a do-it-yourself lifestyle. Their biggest concern is providing for their family, not global environmental issues.

- Traditionals (11 percent) are set in their ways and do not see the need for energy reform.

Right off the bat, the survey says nearly a third of the market is already interested in a smart grid. Additionally, another third (the “Young America” and “DIY & Save” groups) may not be specifically knowledgeable about smart grids or smart meters, but likely would be open to the idea if educated about a smart grid's potential cost benefits.

Of the two groups seemingly least interested in any sort of grid updating and meter changing, the Easy Street folks actually may not prove to be a barrier. That group is less concerned with money than time and hassle, which means a traditional cost-saving argument may not sway them. However, should smart meter installations or infrastructure updates run relatively smoothly (perhaps after being piloted on more enthusiastic customers), that group may not be a particularly big barrier. Of course, asking for smooth infrastructure updates may be an overly ideal scenario, but it's possible.

That leaves just the 11 percent (the total of the five groups adds up to 101% due to rounding on the SGCC's part) of the Traditionals. While this group of smart grid curmudgeons is unlikely to back any sort of change, they represent the only segment that's a firm barrier to grid modernization, and its percentage is relatively minor compared to the rest.

A quick note on the survey itself for those skeptical of a smart grid advocacy group's results suggesting support for smart grid growth: the total sample size was 1,200, and the pool of respondents comprised heads of household over 18 who were contacted via a national random digit-dialed survey targeting both land lines and cell phones. The random data were weighted by age, ethnicity, gender and region to match national population statistics. At a 95 percent confidence level, the margin of error was 3.2 percent.

So while the sample size is a wee bit on the small side, it's a perfectly standard survey. It's also just the first of three phases of research undertaken by the SGCC to delve into how the market reacts to smart grid tech. But with just these numbers in mind -- and ignoring the SGCC's standard fluff -- the report does suggest that the actual percentage of consumers who are against grid modernization as a matter of principal is quite small. On the other hand, the percentage of the market that's gung-ho for a smart grid is still less than the majority. And as we've discussed before, educating people (even utility employees) on the smart grid is no easy task. So while the market is ripe, it's going to take an entity with a fair bit of resources and wherewithal to swing a majority.