Do Smart Meters Really Promote Energy Efficiency?

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By Alex Dominguez, Associated Press Writer

BALTIMORE (AP) — Smart meters alone are not enough to save energy and money, a new study finds.

Significant savings are possible, however, and consumers save more when given information tailored to their use. Programs that focus on energy efficiency and conservation also produced more savings than those that sought to move energy use to off-peak hours.

Those are some of the findings of a review of 57 studies conducted over three decades for the Washington-based American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

Smart meters are part of efforts to develop a smart grid that allows communication between power producers, transmitters and end users, enabling conservation and savings when consumers, for example, know how much power costs at different times of the day, and producers can respond better to outages and increases in demand.

Most take advantage of the Internet and other advances in computer and communication technology.

ACEEE Executive Director Steven Nadel said the key is not only the ability to communicate, but what is communicated.

"The more useful, readily understandable and actionable information you can provide, the better," Nadel said. "You don't just want to inundate consumers."

While the most widely used programs are called enhanced billing — in which information on power pricing is provided in monthly bills or separate mailings — devices are being developed to provide consumers with more timely information, including desktop orbs that glow different colors during peak and off-peak times, and web portals.

"One of the nice things about the orb is it's a very simple color, you don't have to get out your calculator and say 'So, what does this information mean?' You know green is good and red is bad," Nadel said.

The group said the review found U.S. consumers could cut household electricity use as much as 12% and save $35 billion or more over the next 20 years if utilities go beyond smart meter initiatives and include a wide range of energy-use feedback tools.

The study comes as Maryland regulators and Baltimore Gas & Electric struggle over BGE's smart meter proposal, which regulators rejected, saying consumers bore too much of the program's cost for uncertain savings.

The BGE program, which had attracted $200 million in federal stimulus funding, would have been deployed across its entire service area and paid for by the grants and surcharges on customer bills. The program would have involved meters that would have allowed consumers to track their use, but also would have instituted a new pricing plan in which prices rose with demand.

Nadel said smart meters also don't have to come only from the power company.

Google, for example, has a smart meter program that allows consumers to view usage information provided by utility smart meters and energy monitoring devices online. In addition to utility smart meters, companies like TED market devices such as "The Energy Detective" that is installed in home breaker boxes.

John "Skip" Laitner, the ACEEE's director of economic and social analysis, said such technologies are in their infancy.

"We're beginning to see a lot more interest in this field altogether, so who knows what intriguing arrangements or devices or feedback relationships with consumers may emerge," Laitner said.

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