Meters Can Make Us All a Little (Smart)er

This prefix has come to find a home in the discussion of sustainability. Some would take this to mean that being sustainable is just intelligent. This would be correct. Whether you are an environmentalist or not ecological responsibility makes sense on many different levels leaving it as the “smart” option. President Obama has already talked about our infrastructure and the need for a Smart-Grid. This loose term can mean a number of different things but one component of it is Smart-Metering and how what will soon become a fixture to all homes can help raise awareness and efficiency for both users and suppliers of energy. Even the term “Smart Meter” is a bit ambiguous and different companies use the name for different products: some that focus on making users smarter and others on making suppliers smarter. Both of these goals are important.

So what is the disconnect in our energy use? The source of our dilemma is the jump between raw energy transmission and the result of an individual activity that it allows. Few people liken flipping on a light switch in their home to drawing more power. We all know our collective monthly activities use power, but aside from the bill we get in the mail we have no easy way to focus on individual activities and their resulting energy needs. Power companies suffer from the same problem. They know how much goes out and they know where it is going, but after that the data loses detail with no way to link dates and times to particular usage patterns. Smart Meters seek to bridge this gap and provide a mutual education to both parties.

smart meter diagram

If we look at the supplier side Smart Meter refers to a new electrical meter that is directly linked, real time, to a power company. GE is one of the leading manufacturers of this new technology. The purpose of this product is to allow power companies when individual households are using their power and in what capacity. So what does this do? First of all it provides them with means to better balance energy production for the grid between peak and off-peak hours. Power plants are not incredibly flexible systems. Even the 5 megawatt turbine in Bank of America’s One Bryant Park takes three days to start up or shut down. This means that fluctuations in output have to be planned.

Secondly it will allow power companies to offer different billing rates for different times of the day, rewarding people for using more of their power load in off-peak times. Customers that use the evening to charge their phone, do their laundry, watch their TV or charge their car (we can only hope) will pay less than doing so in the day when the grid is taxed more heavily. The result could be lower power bills for homeowners.

On the side of the user a Smart Meter represents a product that gives data, real time, back to the user. By means of a read out panel a homeowner can see the real time usage of power and watch instantly how different activities affect the total outcome. Instantly the connection between power production and use becomes more real, if not tangible, in the minds of homeowners. Google subscribes to the same logic. The company is working on Google PowerMeter, an applet linking into smart meters that bring the information right to your desktop.

The number of believers in Smart Meters as a key to efficiency continues to grow. There are some, like members of the Rocky Mountain Institute, who believe that efficiency alone could account for a 20-30% reduction in our nation’s power usage. For a country that consumed 4.16 million gigawatt hours in 2007, that is a big number.