Smart grids, dumb customers?

GE, one of the most enthusiastic proponents of the “smart grid”, has launched a new website, www.itsyoursmartgrid.com, to try to win public acceptance for the technology.

The initiative from GE, which hopes to be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the potentially huge market for smart grid equipment, reveals how the biggest obstacle to the technology is likely to be political and consumer resistance.

For all the benefits of a smart grid, in terms of cutting overall energy use, smoothing demand peaks, reducing transmission losses, preventing equipment failures and enabling investment in micro-generation, it seems many people are quite happy with their old dumb grids.

A fully integrated smart grid, using modern information technology to monitor and transmit information about flows of power around the system, includes many features that consumers would never see. No-one is going to care about sensors fitted to transformers to anticipate failure, for example. But when the smart grid comes into the home, in the shape of the smart meters that enable real-time measurement of energy use and costs by both the customer and the supplier, then that changes.

GE says that in a British trial of smart grid technology that used its equipment, electricity demand was cut by 9 per cent: a very impressive result. But that was in a village that was pre-selected as having a population interested in energy and the environment, which embraced the trial enthusiastically. A record of the community’s energy use was posted in the village hall, people would go from house to house encouraging each other to save energy and passing on tips, and so on. Not everyone wants to live that way, as other, less successful, trials have shown.

For some, being able to see how the money is ticking away every minute might be a real cause for worry, making them uneasy about being able to afford their energy. Others do not like the sense that they are being pushed into inconvenient lifestyle changes, such as doing their washing at night when electricity demand is lower and prices cheaper. GE likes to say that its technology enables changes in behaviour, not lifestyles, but until there is a new generation of intelligent appliances that can communicate with the smart grid and make automatic and painless adjustments that consumers will not notice, then it will be hard to avoid some impact on lifestyles.

Although the issue has not yet broken cover, there is certainly potential there for the impact of the smart grid to be a source of public and political controversy, and that could prevent the legislative and regulatory changes that will be needed to persuade companies to invest.

As Keith Redfearn, GE Energy’s head of transmission and distribution for Europe, puts it: “We need to educate consumers, but also regulators and government.”

Itsyoursmartgrid.com does an impressive job of marshalling the arguments, looking at the case for smart grids in terms of energy security, environmental benefits and job creation. If people are to be persuaded to change their behaviour, though, the campaign to win hearts and minds will need a lot more than that.

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