“Smart Grid” may be a common enough term to folks in cleantech, but most people don’t know anything about it beyond notice that their utility is replacing their old dusty meters with digital smart meters. The lack of market education has led to backlashes and dead ends. But now a group of companies and organizations with a stake in the Smart Grid have banded together to change the tide.
Spearheaded by the leadership team at Control4, maker of a home energy management and automation dashboard for regular consumers, the new Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC) includes big names like General Electric, Best Buy, IBM, Silver Spring Networks, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and the GridWise Alliance. Together, they are going to support programs that build consumer understanding and confidence in the changes being made to build a cleaner, more efficient electrical grid.
“I’m relatively new to the Smart Grid, and I am shocked that there is so much energy and stimulus money going toward this — but also so much worry,” says Susan Cashen, vice president of marketing for Control4. “All the utilities I’ve talked to — Austin Energy, Florida Power & Light, everyone — is shrugging their shoulders, concerned about how to get the consumer more involved.”
Launched at DistribuTECH, the group will tackle the problem in three ways: by investing in research on how to get customers more engaged in energy consumption habits and conservation (mostly by telling them how much money they can save; by providing utility customers with educational resources and channels to ask questions and find out more; and by developing a list of best practices that all members of the collaborative and others can share to make consumers feel better about the changes being made to their meters and the new options that come with them.
“We’re going to create consistent tools, messaging and campaigns that we can then provide to our utility partners,” Cashen says. “We have to get people over the hurdle — it’s all about driving consumer behavioral change. It’s not an overnight activity.”
The organization is coming along at an apt time. Pacific Gas & Electric ran into some serious opposition last year when it rolled out smart meters in Bakersfield, Calif. and surrounding areas. Residents claimed that their energy bills went up once the meters were installed, insisting that they were being price gouged. They even filed a class action lawsuit against the company. Similar roadblocks have popped up in other areas of the country where utilities are trying to deploy Smart Grid technologies without providing their consumers with much more information than a card in the mail alerting them to the change.
Cashen says conflicts like this could be prevented if consumers were made to understand how they stand to benefit from Smart Grid developments. For now, it just looks like the utilities are upgrading to help themselves.
“A lot of utilities have expressed interest, and we expect more to fall in line,” Cashen says. The Collaborative will be making a big push to recruit members and manpower this fall during the GridWeek conference in Washington, D.C.