Credit: David J. Unger

The key will be for utilities and third-party providers to develop applications with easy-to-use software.

Utility customers want real-time data on their energy use, but they worry about who handles their information on its way from their smart meter to their smartphone, according to a new survey on smart meter attitudes. 

Researchers with the Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative surveyed about 1,700 U.S. consumers about their attitude toward smart meters and a series of products offered to help them save money.

“We found that consumers are viewing the data as a benefit,” said Nathan Shannon, deputy director of the SECC. “We tested three different concepts, each one a little different in how data analytics can be used to gauge consumers to help them have more control in their usage and help make better energy decisions.”

Here are a few key takeaways:

  • 61 percent were interested in programs that help them save money by using home appliances a different times of the day.
  • 57 percent were interested in programs to help identify opportunities to save money by upgrading to energy-efficient appliances.  
  • 42 percent said they would be interested in letting their utility use their data to help optimize their home energy use. 

As smart meters — digital devices that record power use and communicate that information to utilities — are deployed across the U.S., there is a tremendous opportunity for consumers to conserve energy.

“Everybody focuses on the falling cost of solar and wind and batteries, which are unbelievable, but I think the real revolution in the electricity industry has been the introduction of sensors and controls and telecommunication apparatus all of which produce enormous quantities of data,” said Dick Munson, director of the Environmental Defense Fund.

Power utilities were built for the 20th century, and billions of dollars have been spent in Illinois to retrofit the energy grid for a modern era. Smart meters are now ubiquitous here, and they unlock the ability for consumers to see real time information about their energy use.

But questions remain about who should have access to that information and how it should be managed. Utilities? Researchers? Third-party companies?

Utilities are heavily regulated business and function with little competition, guaranteed returns, and — until recently — little need for technological innovation. They are in the business of keeping the lights on and are not always equipped to build the latest-and-greatest home energy app. Until recently, they thought of people as ratepayers and not customers, and that mindset has been difficult to shake.

Meanwhile, consumers are accustomed to streamlined interfaces and sleek software design. They want to manage their home energy use simply, like downloading a podcast or transferring money with their phone. 

“Take Google Now,” said Kevin Dick, director of the Delta Institute, “it tells you when it’s going to rain. You don’t have to go look it up, don’t have to go to a website, you don’t even have to step outside. It just notifies.” 

The Google Now experience is what customers have come to expect from any home energy management application. Compared to utilities, technology companies maybe better equipped to build these applications.

A few problems: Consumers trust utilities with their data, and they don’t necessarily trust third-parties. Also, most consumers believe utilities are already analyzing their data and helping consumers find ways to save money. But — unless consumers opt into a program or applications — most utilities are not watching to ensure that consumers are using electricity efficiently.

“One of the things we want to talk to consumers about when we do these surveys is who they’re looking to as a trusted source of information around energy whether that’s education or an endorsement for products or services or programs,” Shannon said. “We still have consistently found that consumers think utilities are that trusted resource.”

SECC found that 78 percent of consumers trust their utility and are more likely to participate in a program or purchase the product if their utility endorses it. 

Dick is all too familiar with this fact. The Delta Institute developed Lumin, a mobile notification service designed to help Chicago customers manage their energy bill. He experienced consumer skepticism first-hand.

“We hear this a lot when we were talking to customers—especially low-income customers: ‘It sounds like it’s too good to be true,’” Dick said.  “We can save you money on your furnace. We can save your money on solar. We can save you money by switching your energy use. They don’t trust the sales pitch.”

Of course, there are companies that take advantage of customers. But with better data from smart meters, consumers can find granular savings. One study of ComEd’s territory found that 97 percent of customers could have saved in 2016 just by participating in a real-time pricing program.

Another issue is that utilities operate as monopolies, and in the past have been guarded about sharing consumer data — even to research groups and universities. Munson said that the open data can provide benefit individuals and to society.

“The issue is to ensure that the utilities do not monopolize the data that it’s really something that empowers consumers and allows them to deal with energy management firms or energy management devices that they trust to automatize their energy use in ways that save them money,” Munson said.

Regulators and legislators in Illinois have tried preventing this from happening here. The passage of Illinois’ smart meter bill in 2011 it set in motion billions of dollars to pay for smart grid development across the state. The bill allowed utilities to get a return on their investment for smart meters, but regulators also specified that the data would have to be made available to customers and would not be totally controlled by utilities.

“Here in Illinois, we specified that the data coming out these smart meters is public, and there should processes by which people can gain access to it,” Munson said. “Basically: vendors, energy management companies can help consumers utilize this data in ways that will save them money.”

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.