Everett "Buddy" Parkerson of Ameren Illinois installs smart meters in the Champaign/Urbana area. Credit: Lloyd DeGrane / Midwest Energy News / file

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White homeowners are most informed about smart meters, according to a recent survey of Chicago residents.

A recent poll should prompt Illinois utilities, nonprofits, and government agencies to question whether their efforts to educate residents about smart meters are reaching a wide enough spectrum of households.

The survey by researchers at the University of Chicago found about 90 percent of white homeowners had heard of smart meters, compared to about 75 percent and 60 percent, respectively, for black and Hispanic homeowners. The percentage of renters aware of smart meters was smaller across all race categories.

In a webinar, Robert Rosner, co-director of the Energy Policy Institute (EPIC) at the University of Chicago, said the team hoped to answer questions about the effectiveness of communications around smart meters.

“The kind of messaging that is targeted at the educated middle class, how does that play out in less educated and less well-to-do communities?” Rosner said. “The kind of messaging that you would make to folks that own their home; does it apply equally well to folks that rent — especially in poor communities?”

The survey was conducted by the independent research institution NORC at the University of Chicago and funded by the Illinois Science and Energy Innovation Foundation, which also provides funding to Midwest Energy News.

The random-digit-dial telephone survey of adults was conducted in 2014 between Nov. 23 and Dec. 23 and focused on Chicago residents in the southern portion of the city. Interviewers completed the survey with 956 participants.  

It found:

  • Most respondents said they think about how to save energy in their homes — 28 percent said they did a “great deal,” 19 percent “quite a bit,” and 29 percent said “a moderate amount.”
  • Controlling for homeownership, African-Americans were the most conscious about energy savings compared to whites or Latino groups.
  • Across all income brackets, white respondents were more informed about smart meters.

Messaging aside, it’s widely understood there are financial barriers for residents to access smart meter benefits such as devices that can unlock greater efficiencies and financial savings in the long-term.

Consumers with smart meters can choose time-of-use billing with some utilities in which they are charged less for power late at night or during other off-peak times, and they are encouraged to run appliances during these hours to save money. But that assumes that they own these appliances.

Not all apartment dwellers have room for dishwashers or laundry machines — let alone the roof space to install solar panels or garage space to plug-in an electric vehicle, both of which can unlock a bunch of other energy savings.

Christina Krost, an outreach support worker for Faith in Place, follows Ameren’s smart meter deployment in the Champagne area and targets communities that need more education. She said utilities can do a better job of reaching consumers—especially customers that don’t have as much money or are living outside of major cities.

People who are wealthier and better educated “seem to understand efficiency and how it saves them money,” she said. “They are much more willing to put in a programmable thermostat or LEDs, something that may cost more upfront but will save money in the long run.”

Kevin Stark

Kevin has written for Midwest Energy News since May of 2017. His work has appeared in Pacific Standard, Chicago Reporter, Chicago Reader, and on NPR’s Latino USA, among other outlets.

One reply on “Survey finds racial, income gaps in awareness about smart meters”

  1. I worked in the electric public utility sector for about 22 years before retirement. And from my perspective as a utility customer they are something I am forced to pay for but USELESS to the consumer.

    First, it does nothing for me. I can’t tell when I am approaching my Demand Response trigger.
    Second, I can’t access it from my PC or phone to access the data it is creating and sending to my utility.
    Third, I have to physically go outside my home to even read the darn thing and all I get is the total number of Kwh used during some time period.
    Fourth, my utility set a trigger point for Demand Response based on my meters data. As someone very conscience of consuming electricity my home has been improved over the years and is now very efficient. That means that I have a much lower Demand Response trigger than my neighbor who could care less and consumes more energy.

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