Loving the Smart Grid and its Consumer Benefits at New America Foundation Panel

WASHINGTON, July 13, 2010- A panel of smart grid experts claims that smart grid advocates and providers are not doing enough to educate consumers about the benefits of smart grid technology.

WASHINGTON, July 14, 2010- A panel of smart grid experts claims that smart grid advocates and providers are not doing enough to educate consumers about the benefits of smart grid technology.

New America Foundation’s director of their energy policy initiative, Lisa Margonelli, moderated the event and began by reviewing the major benefits to consumers through utilizing the smart grid including how the smart grid can save energy, allow consumers to shop for their electricity service, and protects them from possible electricity blackouts. However, Margonelli said “consumers need to love, not just like smart grid,” and that consumers need to trust both the smart grid and smart grid utilities providers in order for it to be effective.

David Owen, executive vice president of Edison Electric Institute said that smart electricity meters will be necessary along with the smart grid infrastructure in order to truly have a successful impact. Robert Leiberman, principal with The Regulatory Assistance Project also spoke about the smart meters bringing about a new business model for electricity billing and that many utilities and customers are not comfortable with the new model.

Karen Ehrhardt-Martinez, who is a senior research associate with the Renewable and Sustainable Energy Institute at the University of Colorado said this is a critical time for smart grid since it has media attention, funding from the Department of Energy, and interest from utilities. She said the backlash from the American public concerning smart grid relates to consumers’ confidence in the technology. She also advocated smart meters with display screens, so that consumers can actually see the amount of electricity and related cost of energy running in and out of their homes.

Baltimore Gas & Electric (BGE) was awarded $136 million to deploy smart grid technologies by the Department of Energy. However, the Maryland Public Service Commission recently denied BGE authorization to actually install smart meters in the state, saying that the financial risks to consumers was greater than the potential benefits. The panelists agreed that this was not a major blow to smart grid expansion, and was more of a utility pricing and rate issue than it was a new technology issue.

John Howat, Senior Policy Analyst at the National Consumer Law Center; felt the commission did like uncertainty in the projected future benefits of smart grid and said “The touted benefits and the numbers were not concrete, but based on the assumption that consumers would shift to cheaper energy times.”

When it comes to potential ideas for managing the recent smart grid concerns, Ehrhardt-Martinez said the people need to be empowered and feel like they are  part of the solution. A more robust education program and better information about the peak times and expense of energy usage will better motivate the public to embrace the technology. Howat said there needs to be a better planning process and smart grid technology should be compared to other alternate energy systems to justify funding.

Leiberman said “We have to depend on the ability of people to learn and adapt to the time it takes them to learn.” He also said that it is impossible to draw conclusions from a one- or two-year long project, and more time would need to pass before conducting a review of smart grid effectiveness to consumers. In addition to advocating a better education system, Owen said the people need more investment security and that utilities need to better balance the risks and benefits.

Editor’s Note: Join the next Broadband Breakfast Club event on Tuesday, July 20, from 8 a.m. to 10 a.m., on “The Smart Grid, Telecommunications, and the Electric Infrastructure,” featuring top officials from the FCC, the Utilities Telecom Council, and Verizon Communications. Registration is available at http://broadbandbreakfast.eventbrite.com.

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