While the eco blogs have been full of “smart grid this” and “smart grid that” for the last couple of years, only 21 percent of U.S. consumers say they’ve heard of the smart grid and far fewer understand how it affects them, according to a national survey released today by General Electric.
To combat the general lack of smart grid knowledge, GE and several other smart grid industry players also announced today that they are forming the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative.
Headed up by Jesse Berst, managing director at GlobalSmartEnergy, the collaborative’s members are a virtual who’s who of smart grideratti: Silver Spring Networks, IBM, the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), GE, the Gridwise Alliance, Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel. The collaborative was hastily put together over the last two months, a time frame that didn’t allow for notoriously slow and bureaucratic utilities to join right away, Berst said, but the collaborative is in talks with several utilities that plan to join.
John MacDonald, general manager of marketing for GE Energy’s Transmission and Distribution division, shared more data points from GE’s research that made clear just how dire the need for consumer education on smart grid is.
Among U.S. consumers who are familiar with the term "smart grid," MacDonald pointed out, the majority feel they have gaps in their knowledge. More than two-thirds of those who claimed to be familiar with the term weren’t sure if their homes were already connected to a smart grid. A sister survey in Australia found similar numbers, with 72 percent of Australians saying they are unfamiliar with the term "smart grid" and 68 percent of those who are familiar with the term still unsure if their homes are connected.
The GE data is only the latest to suggest that consumers need to have smart grid explained to them a bit more, and that, in doing so, utilities and technology companies can turn consumers into their greatest allies.
As Guido Bartels, IBM’s general manager of energy and utilities, pointed out today, IBM research has found that over 70 percent of consumers would happily engage with tools that give them information and control over their energy usage. The gap between GE’s data, which reveals how few people understand what smart grid is, and IBM’s, which reveals how eager people are to get more involved with their energy use, is precisely the space the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative (SGCC) will address.
“The whole ‘if you build it they will come’ adage doesn’t really translate for smart grid consumers,” said Janine Ostrander, of the Office of the Ohio Consumers’ Counsel. “Consumers need to understand the value of smart grid for them before they will engage with it. Smart grid needs to be made simple.”
Katherine Hamilton, president of the Gridwise Alliance, called consumer awareness and engagement the “missing piece” of the current smart grid build-out.
“It’s something we’ve really been trying to get our arms around: What will consumers respond to? How do we get them to engage?” she said. “So it’s really good that we’re getting together on this. The smart grid is not smart until the consumer is engaged.”
Educating and engaging consumers may also help diffuse any further backlash against smart meters as they roll out.
“Most consumers don’t get today why they should even care about this stuff,” Richard Walker, president of home automation company Control4 said.
“I live in California and every week or every other week there’s a consumer group concerned about the accuracy of meters or some other issue related to the meters. Last week there was some concern about whether smart meters radiate.
"We really need to make it clear what the value of these things are before they’re installed in peoples’ homes. We need to explain why they should care, what they can do to reduce their bills, but also how they are participating with utilities in energy efficiency programs, how their neighborhood is behaving in that regard and how they have a say in smart grid. We want to encourage them to participate.”
The GE survey of U.S. consumers, conducted by StrategyOne, involved 1,000 people reached by phone nationwide. Among other things, it found that of those who are familiar with the term "smart grid," 80 percent believe it will help the country make better use of clean energy sources, 74 percent believe it will help them make better decisions about energy use, and 72 percent believe it will save them money.
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