Will smart meters deliver efficiency, savings? 2012 could tell

With plans to have a smart electricity and/or gas meter in every British home and business by 2019, the UK will enter a “critical period” in 2012.

Speaking at the Smart Metering Forum taking place in London, Energy Minister Charles Hendry yesterday said that — done right — a rollout of advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) technology across the country would help consumers to save energy and money as well as move the nation toward its goal of a decarbonized economy with a wealth of new green jobs.

“If we can make this a success, then as well as delivering benefits for consumers and for society more generally, we can also enhance … trust in the energy industry and, dare I say it, in government as well,” Hendry said. “That’s a big prize.”

More than anything, that “big prize” depends upon ordinary people seeing a benefit from smarter energy metering. As a report from the think-tank Institute for Fiscal Studies noted this week, people in the UK — particularly families with lower incomes — are already being squeezed by rising energy prices, a trend that’s likely to be persistent for the long term. Unless consumers know how to make sure advanced metering technology performs as billed, and see a real-life and meaningful payback, Britain’s smart-grid dreams could risk a public backlash.

Hendry acknowledged that consumer engagement is “fundamental” to the government’s smart-meter goals, and that any strategy needs to address cost, radio-frequency and privacy issues that have dogged other rollouts. He might want to remember what Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) discovered during its own trip down the smart-grid path:

As Chris Johns, president of PG&E said, “We thought we were undertaking an infrastructure project but it turned out to be a customer project.”

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