A few years ago, smart meters and the smart grid were hot ideas in the media. Even the president of the United States extolled their virtues in a 2009 speech, saying that they would help average people save energy and cut their utility bills. While the number of smart meters installed since them has mushroomed:
With 50 million US homes now having one, about 43% of the total number of households, the expected changes in behavior and energy savings haven't quite yet blown anyone away. That's probably in good part because having a smart meter on the side of your house and getting a slightly more detailed bill isn't enough to make people change their habits.
The random person on the street probably only have a vague idea of what a kWh is, and most people seem to think that they don't have too much impact on their energy consumption; you just get a bill periodically, pay it, and that's the extent of your thinking about electricity.
But it doesn't have to be this way. Smart meters are a foundational block to get us to the next level, but they are not sufficient in themselves. What we need is a system that speaks a language that the average person can understand, and convey the information in such a way that energy isn't just an afterthought.
The first thing to do is to translate less intuitive figures like kWh into how much money the electricity use is actually costing you. Above you can see some examples of readouts from the Rainforest Automation energy monitoring unit (pictured at the top of this post).
The second thing is to make the feedback real-time. If you clearly see on a monitor in your living room that you're spending X number of dollars per hour right now, and then turn off a few lights and lower the A/C and see that number drop, you get powerful feedback that immediately rewards you and encourages you to pick up good habits. This doesn't happen when you only get a bill weeks later.
It's a phenomenon that was quite common with early hybrid cars. Drivers for the first time had a big screen showing them their real-time MPG, historical data in easy-to-understand graphs, etc. This feature alone probably saved a lot of gas just by teaching drivers how to be more fuel efficient. The hybrid drivetrain was just an added bonus, which led me to believe that prominent fuel economy feedback should be in all cars.
Part of the reason why it works is that it's fun. Call if "gamification" if you want, but to many people it's satisfying to try to do better than you've done in the past and optimize your fuel economy or energy use, as long as there's an easy way to see how you're doing (doing it blind isn't nearly as fun).
A way to push this even further is to have people prepay for their energy (just like they pay for their fuel before driving off, rather than being invoice later). You then see the amount of money in your account drop as you use energy, until you get an automated reminder that you need to top up your account. This approach has been tried in the Phoenix region and in parts of Texas, and results are very promising: "A 2010 study on M-Power found not only that consumers loved it, but that it saved them 12 percent on energy bills, on average."
So our meters aren't quite smart yet, but we know how to get there. Let's get moving.