Old homes get smart

Smart metering is coming. Within a decade, you’ll know exactly how much every flip of a switch or turn of a knob costs in monthly utility charges.

The Times profiles two British seaside towns on the forefront of the low-tech energy efficiency revolution. Take, for example, Hove residents Brenda and Jeffrey Marchant, owners of a typical Victorian house. The Marchants were always energy-thrifty, but instant feedback is a uniquely motivating force.

> Turn on a computer and the device — a type of so-called smart meter — goes from 300 watts to 400 watts. Turn off a light and it goes from 299 to 215. At 500, the meter is set to sound an alarm.

> “I’ve become like one of Pavlov’s dogs,” Mrs. Marchant said. “Every time it bleeps I think I’m going to take one of those pans off the stove. I’d do anything to make it stop. It helps you change your habits.”

Homeowners are insulating attics and swapping out windows as part of an ambitious effort to drop the city’s emissions 20% by 2012. None of the efficiency measures are particularly exotic, and most pay for themselves. The city provides grants for some of the more expensive items, such as solar water heaters.

The U.S., of course, lags, but already technology providers are working on more sophisticated forms of smart meter that can adjust power consumption automatically by controlling appliances. When woven together into a smart grid, these systems can help reduce peak power demand.

Demand management is good for the environment, and also good for utilities. Southern California Edison plans to distribute smart meters to all 5.3 million customers by 2012. Such a program would have been financially infeasible just a few years ago. With prices on the technology dropping, the utility now expects to at least break even.

And, of course, you early adopters can get a jump start on the electricity savings by installing your own home energy monitor.

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  1. Tom Harrison - July 30, 2008

    The instant feedback that monitors like this provide work miraculously. I have the home energy monitor, and also a Prius, that displays mileage on the screen. These simple things make a huge difference in my behavior (although it could be said that I react to energy cues more like Pavlov’s dogs than most :-)
    Here’s what I don’t understand.
    First, I have two other meters in my house for water and gas (which we heat with). What great leaps of technology will be required to have these in front of my face as I can now do with electricity.
    Second, why aren’t utility companies providing such devices, or at least the opportunity to get access to the information, as part of their services?
    Third, why do my utilities, at least, make is so hard to even understand consumption rates from the bills? I tried to figure out how much water I use. My bill comes every three months, and usage is measured in hundred cubic feet (HCF); 18 of them every three months didn’t seem so bad until I googled “100 cubic feet in gallons” — yikes, 1 HCF is about 750 gallons! Gas and electric bills are also inscrutable, and delayed.
    I wonder what the stock market would be like if there were a one month delay in prices :-)
    Nothing is better than “now”; instant feedback meters provide information you can act on in the moment. Why don’t utilities provide this?
    My guess at the answer is just that there are few, none, or even negative incentives for most utilities. I like Amory Lovins’ “negawatt” idea (that you wrote about a few days ago). Utilities should at the very least be rewarded for how well they get customers to reduce usage.
    Tom

  2. Adam Stein - July 30, 2008

    I think this stuff is coming, Tom, but you’re right that incentives in the industry aren’t structured right now to make this worth their while. Over the next few years, the incentives will hopefully change and the technology will become cheaper. But a wholesale shift is going to take a long time, I imagine. There’s a lot of existing infrastructure out there.

  3. Donny - August 6, 2008

    I totally agree with Tom. I’d like more instant information too. I think the reasons we don’t see it yet are twofold: large installed base of current technology, and the incredible conservatism of utility companies.
    Regarding the latter, I work in the industrial sector, which is a sector that in general is very slow to embrace change, for some very good historical reasons. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” rules here. New stuff tends to break, and within industry, money is lost very rapidly (and sometimes lives are lost) with each breakage. Plus, infrastructure costs that you paid for this (plant, factory, whatever) are so large that you want to let it run uninterrupted by upgrades, making money as long as possible to get that truly massive investment paid down.
    Now, within the industrial sector, utility companies are probably at the slower end of the “accepting change” spectrum. “It delivered power this way last year, and it delivered power this way since my granddad worked for the utility, so it can darned well deliver it this way next year”. Again, there are probably good reasons for this, but we all can hope that they are realizing that things will _have_ to change: a single branch shorting a line bringing down the entire Northeast grid for days just isn’t making many of us happy. Coal plants cleaned by letting the breeze blow the pollution “away” aren’t making many of us happy. It will take a lot of pressure over a lot of time to make an industry this stodgy and invested in the status quo change, but folks like TerraPassers can stay active in pressing for that change.