Smart Grids Must Short Circuit User Apathy

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Smart meters might cut energy use – but only if users can be persuaded to welcome them and use them effectively, says Peter Judge

Smart grids are a good idea. They add intelligence to the electricity delivery network, so it can manage supply and demand and reduce the amount of power the country uses. But if the idea is going to work,  users must get involved.

Smart grids are a classic example of IT being used to increase efficiency. Put sensors across the network and gather their data, then apply some intelligence, and maybe we could switch off some of our power stations. The UK government has promised to get them out there as quick as it can, and has a big pilot project proposed for the North of England.

Could smart meters shut down power stations?

There have been three major issues with smart grid deployments.

The security issue was initially overlooked, and is being addressed rather late, and in a fragmented way. And secondly, to work well, the smart grid will have to handle a veritable tsunami of data from the smart meters in people’s homes.

Both of these problems are technical ones, and that means they are pretty well understood – and they are actually opportunities.

As soon as anyone mentioned smart grid security, a queue of security vendors formed, ready to sell an answer. And the flood of data from smart meters is likewise very dear to the hearts of IBM, HP and a host of other companies. It is exactly what they are looking for to flog their analytics solutions.

Those aspects aren’t fundamentally problems. Sorting them out may cost money, which may make a couple of big dents in the economics of smart meters. But we expect them to be solved.

The third and biggest issue is the real one. And – as so often – it is the users.

Fear or apathy?

Some consumers are scared of smart grids. People opposed to the idea use packaged up privacy issues and alleged health risks to build up fears and mobilise people – in a smiilar movement to the “Frankenstein Food” attacks on the idea of GM crops.

This movement includes those with good intentions, as well as people who have prejudged the issue, and are ready to distort information from other sources. Before too long, people should realise they are being asked to fear a wireless network less powerful and pervasive than mobile phone systems and data snooping less intrusive than their social network.

And that leaves the real issue: apathy. What happens if people don’t bother to get their smart meter installed, don’t get it working effectively, and don’t make the savings?

That’s the issue that UK consumer energy monitor company AlertMe hopes to address with a nationwide campaign it is calling an “experiment”.

It is recruiting 100 households to a “panel” which will include activities such as a challenge in which households are asked to live on “energy rations” for a week or a fortnight, to find out just how much energy can actually be saved in the average UK home.

Participants will use the £50 AlertMe kit (pictured), which includes a clamp-on energy meter, which communicates through the house’s broadband network to an iPhone app, so participants can see when energy use is going up or down at their house.

This is the pay-off for AlertMe of course. It is exploiting this problem – treating it as an opportunity – just as surely as the security and analytics parts of the smart meter problem are being exploited by vendors in those fields.

But I do think that this kind of approach could work. It demystifies the smart meter, and it links it to tangible benefits, as well as introducing an element of competition and discovery.

This could be what we need, to short circuit consumer apathy around smart meters – and I wish the project the best of luck.

 

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