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Electric utility industry pledges more power to the people

Consumer Reports News: March 23, 2012 03:23 PM

Promises about the smart grid and smart meters have been pitched to consumers for nearly a decade now, but it's the utility companies who have benefited most from these technologies. That's starting to change, according to Powering the People 2.0, a conference hosted yesterday by the Edison Foundation and the Institute for Electric Efficiency, at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

The conference brought together utility executives, government officials, technology developers, and other industry leaders for a series of presentations and panel discussions on the future of electricity generation, delivery and use. Much of the talk centered around the smart grid, an umbrella term for the overlay of modern technologies that has the potential to turn our century-old grid into an optimized, super-efficient system with two-way communication between utilities and consumers.

In regions where the smart grid has arrived, utilities are benefiting via enhanced understanding of electricity distribution and the elimination of expenses related to monthly meter readings. But consumers aren't always reaping the rewards, even those who have received smart meters. "There were some big policy gaps in the deployment of smart meters," said Cameron Brooks, vice president of policy at Tendril, a Boulder, Colorado company that creates software for the smart grid and home energy management. "Nobody asked the question, 'Should consumers have access to the information, or just the utilities?'" Brooks talked about his own experience with the smart meter on his home in Boulder, which has yet to reveal anything about his energy use.

But Brooks and others at the conference were optimistic that change is happening. The best proof came from Nick Sinai, senior advisor to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, who announced that nine major utilities and electricity suppliers had signed on to the Green Button Initiative, a call to action issued last fall by the Obama administration urging utilities to provide consumers with secure, easy-to-understand information about their energy use.

With yesterday's announcement, 27 million households are now able to access their home's energy profile with a simple click of a button on their utility's website. That gives these consumers the information they need to reduce waste and lower their bills. Equally important, it motivates technology producers to come out with apps and online services that will empower consumers in ways we can't even imagine yet. To drive that point home, Sinai also announced the U.S. Energy Department's Apps for Energy competition, which will award $100,000 to the software developer or designer who comes out with the app that allows consumers to make the best use of their newly liberated energy information.

In the meantime, Consumer Reports is starting testing on the latest generation of programmable thermostats, which can save you money even if your home doesn't have a smart meter. Among the couple of dozen models in our labs is the much talked about Nest learning thermostat. As the testing unfolds, we'll report back.

Daniel DiClerico

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