Greening the grid: Big Brother or big savings?

man grabbing houseHomeowners tend to cast a cold eye on their electric utilities, particularly when it’s time to pay the bill or when the power fails. So it’s no wonder that a new clean technology initiative from the utility industry called Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) has consumer advocates suspicious with some calling it a Big Brother-like intrusion into folks’ homes.

In a nutshell, AMI aims to help conserve energy by enabling two-way communications between the home and the utility through a wireless network of smart meters and smart devices in the home. Picture a smart air conditioner that the utility can turn down remotely when an over-extended power grid starts straining.

AMI will let consumers and utilities work together to conserve energy consumption in the home during peak energy demand periods. It will also let homeowners see when, how and why they’re sucking down kilowatts so that they can make smarter, greener lifestyle decisions. Consumers benefit by saving energy and getting discount rates for playing ball with the utilities. Utilities benefit by avoiding brown-outs and black-outs during demand response periods. 

Despite the obvious merits, it’s a potentially huge PR challenge that the utility industry has yet to take seriously, which is unfortunate because the critics are on the wrong side of the debate this time, IMO.

What’s not to like? Opponents claim it's a waste of ratepayer money that hasn't proven it will reduce electricity usage. They say that fluctuating time-of-day pricing will give utilities the opportunity to raise, not lower, prices. And they don’t like the idea of giving the power company the power to reach in and have their way with your home. Ratepayer advocates such as TURN, The Utility Reform Network, have already launched aggressive legal and political campaigns against the initiative in California and elsewhere.

As a skeptic who never likes to pass up an opportunity to stick it to The Man, I should be wary too. But homes and buildings are worse polluters and energy guzzlers than cars. And ever-growing energy demand, wars for oil and climate change are just a few good reasons for taking risks on new technologies that stand to conserve energy in homes. It will be interesting to see how well the utility industry can counter the ratepayer backlash and rally support for its new initiative.

{Disclosure: Beaupre client, Ember, makes wireless chips that enable AMI applications}


UPDATE: Celeste LeCompte at GigaOM covers the issue from the home appliance perspective.

UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal also weighs in.

Finally you have come up with awesome solution to these bill payments. I got fed up many a times when the power goes off. AMI saved me lot of time and money. I reached the info to many of my friends and at who were thankful to your idea too.
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