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In the future, we’ll all be energy traders?

Journalists tend to focus a lot of attention on smart meters, simply because these are the piece of the smart grid puzzle what will be most directly visible to consumers. And as with any nascent technology, we’re treated to a lot of highly speculative “world of tomorrow” descriptions of the changes just around the corner. In the future, consumers will receive and react to a constant stream of energy price information. We’ll get text messages when electricity prices go up, and we’ll be able to control all of our appliances via an iPhone application. Or something like that.

Tyler Hamilton comments:

> There still exists, however, some skepticism in the market. A handful of utility executives have downplayed the new high-tech tools that give homeowners more control. All the bells and whistles are overkill, they argue, adding that most people don’t have the time to monitor their energy use or participate in demand-response programs.

> Sure, there’s an element of truth there, but only for those stuck in the past. A retiring boomer couple might not be so enthusiastic, but what about the next-generation of homebuyers who grew up text-messaging their friends, frequenting Facebook and Twitter, and doing their banking exclusively online? I would embrace this technology in a flash if it was available.

> It wasn’t long ago that some people dismissed the idea of banking online, or failed to see the value of carrying around a BlackBerry device all day. But my children, for example, will grow up managing their household energy just like they manage their finances, sell stuff on Craigslist, and keep track of friends and family on social networking sites. It will become second nature, and the fact that energy prices will be much higher than they are today will be strong enough incentive.

I dunno. Most people don’t manage their finances, electronically or otherwise, despite the clear incentives to do so. Certainly most people don’t sell stuff on Craigslist. Which makes me wonder.

TerraPass sells a lot of energy monitoring devices, including the ever-popular TED, the energy detective. I know consumer demand exists for these devices, and I’ve also read all the studies showing how effective this sort of direct feedback can be in lowering people’s energy consumption. I don’t question the value of the technology or the appeal to at least a subset of engaged consumers.

I do question whether the future is going to unfold in exactly the way that so many technology writers now envision. It strikes me that a lot of the boring task of responding to constant fluctuations in energy prices can probably be automated away. I really don’t think most consumer want to become energy speculators, although I do believe in the power of both pricing and real-time information to shape consumer behavior.

So, basically, I’m not sure how these changes are going to play out. The vision of homeowners reacting to constant fluctuations in electricity prices seems way too literal-minded. We certainly don’t respond this sensitively to movements in gas prices. On the other hand, turning the electrical grid into a communication network and application platform will surely enable uses that no one can yet imagine. As with many technology revolutions, in a few decades our early predictions will probably look both goofily utopian and strangely unambitious.

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