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Saturday, March 5, 2011

A smarter way to deploy smart meters

It’s no secret that PG&E has created an enormous controversy in California — encouraged by the PUC — with its aggressive push to force smartmeters on its customers. The newspapers and TVs have run story after story on the controversy, there have been hearings and a state investigation, and still cities are “banning” smart meters on a variety of grounds.

The imposition of smartmeters is the ultimate manifestation of a technocratic view of energy management, fueled by $3 billion in stimulus money. On the one hand, smart meters allow demand management and time-of-day metering, and are seen by many as the lynchpin of $200 billion in worldwide investment on bringing the electric distribution grid from the 19th century into the 21st.

On the other hand, customers are seeing their bills increase — both to pay for the meters and for time-of-day use — without any increase in the available energy. The meters are being fought on the left over price increases and on the right over the invasion of privacy.

Now a Texas utility wants to try a different approach. As VentureBeat reports:
It’s interesting to see that one pilot happening in the U.S. is coming at the game with a new approach: Focus on the making the consumer happy about the smart grid. In particular, it wants to demonstrate that the smart grid can improve the quality of consumers’ lives, much in the same way apps add value to the lives of iPhone and smart phone users.

Brewster McCracken, director of the Pecan Street Project in Austin, Tex., says its smart grid demonstration project is unlike any others in that is most concerned with the value to the customer, and not the utility. Part of the project’s goal will be to study how — and whether — the smart grid can provide value to the customer.
How about that? A public utility working to do something that benefits customers? (I’m guessing they came up with this on their own, without any help from the Public Utility Commission of Texas.)

The idea of being customer-driven is not something that comes naturally to big monopolies, particularly utility companies who get their revenues by spending money by lobbying for rate increases, then increase their rate base that is multiplied by guaranteed rate of return. (NB: This culture proved to be a disaster for the phone companies during the 1980s and 1990s when they actually had to compete for customers.)

This also applies to the big suppliers to the power companies, who wouldn’t know a consumer if one bit them on the backside. Even GE — with more than $90 million spent on its Ecomagination consumer PR blitz — isn’t really interested in listening to customers, but instead wiring its meters into local smart grid procurements.

With their assumption of all-knowing, all-seeing command-and-control planning, the top-down government bureaucracies are even worse than the top-down ones at the utilities or the industrial manufacturers. If you want to see Soviet-style central planning in North America 20 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, this is where you’ll find it.

So the Austin public-private collaboration and its leaders should be applauded for their initiative. The old “small is beautiful” Jerry Brown would have loved and trumpeted a decentralized initiative like this, but I guess the state budget quagmire and its $25 billion deficit are occupying 110% of his attention right now.

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