Why the Smart Meter Backlash Story Isn’t Going Away

I can see it now: utility execs and smart grid entrepreneurs shaking their collective heads over the recent (and seemingly never-ending) spate of media attention on consumers pushing back against smart meters. Late last week, the New York Times (s nyt) and the San Francisco Chronicle covered the latest turns of how utilities’ smart meter installations are angering people, mostly because of poor education and outreach programs.

Turns out PG&E’s (former) smart meter exec William Devereaux used a fake name (Ralph!) to join an anti-smart meter consumer group and was outed by the members. As a result (and more probably from the media attention following it), he was suspended, then promptly resigned. While Devereaux’s “crime” wasn’t all that bad (come on, I think more people leave comments with fake names on this site than their real ones), it was just another example of PG&E’s poor PR.

Then the New York Times did a human-interest-style story on some of the consumers who’ve been loudly rejecting the smart meters, complete with quotes like this one: “‘I’ve done two tours in Iraq, and when I come home I’m getting ripped off by my electric meter,’ said Sergeant Robertson, who with his wife, Kim, is raising four children on a tight budget.” Brutal.

This story seriously won’t go away. And here’s why:

1. People don’t like PG&E. PG&E has a long and contentious relationship with California residents. The utility previously backed the losing Prop 16, which would have basically stopped local governments from getting into the power business. There was that whole gas line fire disaster in San Bruno in September, and the utility took months to initially respond with an apology for the first smart meter complaints that emerged. PG&E couldn’t have done a worse job at outreach to date. Basically anything PG&E does at this point is going to be looked at with a skeptical eye. Bummer.

2. Hard times. As the sergeant put it to the New York Times, budgets are tight everywhere right now and anything that’s giving the impression of unfairly costing consumers money is going to face anger, and apparently, a lot of it. This might not happen to such a large extent if wallets weren’t so tight.

3. Technology is confusing: People generally don’t understand how smart meters work. If you have a Wi-Fi router in your home, a cell phone in your pocket, and a GPS device in your car, yet you’re worried about health concerns of your smart meter, then you don’t understand smart meter technology.

4. Digital, networked technology can be scary. As I’ve written at length, adding a network connection and software to a device has, throughout history, tended to make people nervous. Whether it’s a backlash to computerized voting, or online and mobile banking, the digitization of the power grid will face the same uncertainty.

5. It’s getting hot in here. NASA reported that January through September were the hottest on record. The hotter it is, the more air conditioning people use in their homes, and the more they spend on their monthly utility bills. So as the first wave of smart meters is being installed (partly to help fight climate change), the climate has delivered record hot temperatures that are likely boosting a lot of bills.

6. Little innovation, little change. The power industry has seen little innovation over the past century, which is why greentech entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley are so eager to build companies in this industry. As a result, utility consumers are used to a routine, never-changing relationship with the utility, and aren’t used to any type of change, period.

7. What do I get? Compare a smart meter installation to the installation of your new cable connection. Working with the cable company is really annoying; they seem to take forever; their customer service lines are abysmal; yet at the end of the irritating journey, you have an Internet connection that brings you all your favorite web content. After you get your smart meter, what do you get? Oh, the ability to cut down on your energy consumption. Not so fun.

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Image courtesy of eddieq.