Why Smart Meters Don’t Make A Smart Grid

Smart meters were supposed to transform the nation’s electricity grid – but has that happened?

By Stephanie JoyceJune 9, 2015 10:02 am

This story originally appeared on Inside Energy

On the ground, the President’s lofty goals largely took shape in the form of a technology called smart meters. Like a FitBit for your house, the meters collect data about your electricity use several times an hour and then send that data to your power company. Obama declared they would lay the foundation for a modern grid – and be good for customers, too.

But has that happened?

Cole Manlove is a high school math teacher, married, two kids – a totally average American guy. He’s also a customer of Cheyenne Light Fuel and Power, which, received stimulus money like many other utilities to install smart meters for all of its nearly 40,000 customers.

Manlove says he doesn’t normally pay much attention to his electricity use; he just pays the bill every month.

“Because I know I have to pay it in order to keep my home running, ” he says.

But Manlove says he actually would be interested in knowing more – but when he pulls out his paper bill, the only data is a graph of month-to-month usage. Not quite the treasure trove of data promised by the smart grid. So, Manlove decides to call up his utility and ask: is there somewhere he can find more data?

When Manlove eventually gets through to a customer service representative, he finds out he can monitor his power use, by the hour, on the company’s website.

“I’m excited,” he says. “I can go on it and see my peak usage during the day and maybe I can adjust my power usage. That would be cool!”

That’s exactly what smart grid boosters envisioned people doing. But for now, Manlove is one of very few to have actually accessed that data. Just five percent of all Cheyenne Light Fuel and Power’s customers.

Matt Seidel works for the utility’s parent company, Black Hills Corporation. He says even if customers aren’t looking at the data, smart meters have been revolutionary.

“For the past 128 years or 129 years, we’ve been going out and manually reading meters and now we’re able to gather significantly improved data that we’ve never had before,” Seidel says.

He says the smart meters save the company money, by eliminating the need for human meter readers and by letting the utility know quickly when there’s an outage – something that used to require a customer phone call. But when it comes to doing more with the data…like transforming the way we get and consume energy.

“As far as what we can and can’t do with it and what value it provides, I think we’re still in the infancy stages of seeing that.”

And therein lies the rub. The government spent a lot of the stimulus money on installing hardware – the smart meters – but focused less attention on the next steps, making that hardware useful for customers and integrating the data into the operations of the entire grid.

But everyone agrees there’s enormous potential.

Take Tom Seibel, the CEO of C3 Energy, a company that helps utilities use all the new data they’ve collected from devices like smart meters.

“People talk about the internet of things, what the smart grid is really about is the internet of energy.”

But installing smart meters is just a baby step toward that.  Seibel says “you need to do something with all of this data.” And doing something requires huge, systemic changes to the way utilities work. Right now, there’s little business incentive to make those changes in the absence of government grants.

But if all smart meters accomplish is cutting costs for utilities and telling us when the power is out, then the smart grid may not end up being so smart after all.

This story was produced by Inside Energy reporter Stephanie Joyce