Is Smart Grid Tech Being Undersold to Consumers?

John Storts

Very recently, I patiently listened to a representative from a home security service provider as he unspooled his lengthy sales yarn. After about a half hour of nodding and responding where necessary, I asked him a few questions about interoperability with other home systems, reasonable future-proofing, information security, energy consumption and software updates (the system was supposedly capable of receiving software updates "wirelessly.")


This young man was intelligent, enthusiastic and charming. He was a decent salesman. As a matter of fact, during moments when my attention from his pitch strayed, I found myself marveling at his skill, as I just don't have what it takes to be a good salesperson. I hear that first "no" and I'm out. Hardly a tenacious attitude for hitting monthly targets, right?


Regardless, I mention this because, for everything he had going for him personality- and elocution-wise, he lacked corresponding depth of knowledge about his product and service.


I asked what I thought were very basic questions:

  • How does the security interface in our home connect with your monitoring HQ?
  • How can I be sure the wireless devices that you install in our home can't be hacked or overridden?
  • What happens if we trigger a false alarm and who pays for the emergency response in such an event?
  • How much does it cost to power this higher-tech, wireless system? Can it integrate with coming upgrades to electricity and other energy infrastructure?


The poor fellow, for all his practice and charm, couldn't answer these questions, and it was clear he was frustrated.


I admit: I wanted to challenge him to see if he knew his stuff -- or, at least, as best I could with my admittedly limited knowledge -- but I wasn't doing this just to trip up a door-to-door security system salesman. I deliberately wanted to be forward-thinking because, during his whole spiel, I had something nagging at the back of my mind: smart grid tech.


When I asked what ended up being my final unanswered questions about energy consumption and data security, smart grid issues leaped to the fore of my mind.


Given that the U.S. government has recently granted billions of dollars in stimulus money to fund smart grid development, have consumers, whether residential or commercial, been short-sold on information about the benefits of adopting smart grid tech? Have the salespeople undersold an energy-delivery-system transformation that could generate thousands of jobs, reduce energy use and empower people and industries to be smarter, more responsible consumers?


Though it's hardly definitive, my own experience bears this out. Until I started researching for an article about smart grid tech, I knew precious little about it. Although certainly energy conscious at home--we use CFLs, have had an energy audit, plan to replace old appliances/systems with energy-efficient ones, etc .-- I realized I hadn't been doing due diligence when it came to understanding how the energy distribution landscape was changing. Specifically, I hadn't thought as much about how energy was coming into my house as I had been focusing on how it's used once it hits the sockets.


Information about next-gen plans was slow in coming, scant or nonexistent. My local utility seemed to be stuck in last-decade, common-sense recommendations to upgrade thermostats to programmable models to encourage off-peak use. That's most certainly an effective, relatively easy and sensible way to save energy and money, but it isn't exactly future-forward or leading-edge. More aggressive strategies can be found in California's PG&E, Ohio's Duke Energy and Texas' CenterPoint utilities.


I had a vague idea of the potential for smart meters and hoped for an integrated, computer-like panel where I could monitor energy use and get specific data in order to set controls and so on, but I didn't want it to stop there. In this blue-sky daydream, I would also want the system to integrate seamlessly with home security and automation solutions.


Is this too much to hope for? These things don't seem unreasonable to me if integration, security and upgrade considerations are planned for at the start and rolled out in a high-profile, high-impact manner that clearly demonstrates benefits and assuages fears. But, if energy utilities and telecommunications companies aren't already gearing up for this kind of convergence and training their reps accordingly, the smart grid big picture may take longer to develop than I hope.


If I daydream about the considerable cost-savings, environmental stewardship and personal empowerment of this technology as a single residential consumer, I imagine that industrial/commercial consumers must be doing the same thing, unless similarly constrained by lack of information and financial impetus. Businesses themselves, with the aid of this stimulus money, might go a long way toward making the dream a reality if they grab this opportunity, adopt smart-grid tech ahead of the curve and help spread the word using clear, direct and honest language.

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