Customer push back on smart meters in regions of the country such as California, Colorado and Texas will likely be a short-term phenomenon. Unless utilities don’t learn from their mistakes and start thinking more about how smart meter technology can serve their customers, and not just themselves.
In the San Francisco Bay Area, several communities – the most recent being Fairfax in Marin County – have successfully stopped Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) from installing smart meters pending further evaluations about accuracy, security and public health.
Some market participants estimated that roll-outs of “virtual power plants” based on demand response (DR) programs could likely be delayed by one year until these consumer resistance issues are worked out. Without smart meters, one cannot build a VPP, whether tapping generation or DR resources.
The majority of consumer opposition to smart meters is based on complaints of higher electricity prices. A social concern is “Big Brother” monitoring individual customer’s energy use patterns and habits – and even controlling devices in one’s own home. A “wild card” issue stems from emerging science. Just as cell phone technology and other wireless devices are coming under attack from public health advocates worried about links to cancer from exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMF) and radio frequencies (RF), these potential health risks may also pop up with any business model dependent upon wireless communications, including smart grids.
DC-based electric systems are less susceptible to these issues, so DC-based microgrids may have an advantage over VPPs in this regard. Any VPP or microgrid dependent upon wireless signals may fall prey to this criticism. Inverters used to convert solar and wind from DC to AC may also suspect.
There are filters to address these concerns about this kind of “dirty electricity,” and the military has been relying upon these filters for years. Forward-looking component manufacturers selling into the smart grid market could incorporate these filters at a price premium. Another approach, which is being deployed in Japan and much of Europe, is relying on fiber optic networks instead of wireless signals. Google has reportedly purchased large swaths of “dark fiber” – unused fiber optic networks – and could ultimately become a purveyor of ultra-premium smart grid technology, infrastructure for VPPs that would then be immune from the perceived health threats possible with the current explosion of EMF and RF permeating society.
Yet another advantage of fiber optics is this: the potential security threats associated with a large-scale reliance upon wireless networks, an issue currently being examined by state regulators in Colorado and California.
In the long run, the push to empower consumers with more real-time information so they can reduce electricity consumption when prices are high is inevitable, and a logical evolution of technology trends.
Still unanswered is consumer acceptance of the idea of taking more responsibility for on-site energy management. A few VPP advocates offer a contrary view. The current consumer push back is good for this market since utilities will not be able to get away with saying they installed the smart meters, and they are now done. “We need to hold the feet of the utilities to the fire, to really open up the market and create a level playing field and leverage the current CDE base to provide a variety of grid services,” said one representative from one leading developer of VPPs.