Smart grid growth is all about customer acceptance, and the industry could sure use an iMeter.

Those were central themes at this year’s GridWeek conference, which brought 1,000 vendors, regulators, utility officials and lawmakers to Washington, DC from around the US and from overseas Sept. 12-15.

Making smart grid both useful and cool was the center of discussion. Speakers said customer acceptance has emerged as key to taking advantage of smart grid technology, and discussion of how best to bring the customer into the process permeated the conference.

The aim should be “an iMeter”–both simple to operate and with what speakers called a “coolness factor.”

Across the country, experience has varied widely. Smart meters can deliver current data on actual energy usage and costs, and can “talk” with computer chips in major appliances and cut back usage when power prices soar. But with electricity rates fixed by states, consumers often don’t see why they should bother, and instead resist the new technology seeing it as stealth rate increases or even, in California, as a health hazard.

Past GridWeeks have been chock full of the latest cool gadgets and gizmos, as entrepreneurs and IT companies vied to apply digital technology and communications to the nation’s 100-year-old electricity grid. Smart meter-related apps for the cost-conscious and tech-savvy consumer proliferated.

Catering To Consumers

But smart meters remain expensive, the technology isn’t standardized, and how much customers will use their new capabilities remains in question. Chris Villarreal, an analyst with the California Public Utilities Commission, said one utility got 20% of customers to sign up for on-line accounts and found only 5% used them. Jay Morrison of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) said customers “want to play Angry Birds, they don’t want to be searching for power.”

Doug Kim of Southern California Edison said people need decision-making tools based on what’s important to them. The challenge is how to design those tools.

Mike Oldak of the Utilities Telecom Council said the aim should be “an iMeter”–both simple to operate and with what speakers called a “coolness factor.” He noted there are privacy and security issues with smart phones, just as there are with smart meters, but people have seen their value and accept the risk trade-offs.

Paul Nagle of Control4 said consumer devices “must be plug and play,” adding urgency to the on-going national effort to write interoperability standards for the smart grid. Kris Bowring of Best Buy advocated modular designs that will operate on multiple utility systems, so designers can compete and people can buy devices in stores as they now buy computers or phones.

Ohio Public Utilities Commissioner Paul Centolella described an on-line “slider” that lets consumers select their balance between savings and comfort, rather than asking them to set dollar amounts or kilowatt-hours. The system switches off major appliances like air-conditioning when real-time power prices hit the setpoint, and turns them back on when the house temperature rises.

Tom Stathos of PPL Electric Utilities said alerts that let customers know their monthly bills are approaching a preset budget limit are popular, and David Hallquist, CEO of Vermont Electric Coop, said an on-line hourly usage chart, developed in-house for under $10,000, is well-liked by his customers.

Building A Relationship

Also vital is utilities’ outreach. Villarreal said a history of distrust between a utility and its customers makes adoption more difficult, and Morrison said if customers think utilities have an ulterior motive for smart grid, or if it’s coming from government mandates, they won’t embrace the technology.

Judith Schwartz of To The Point said utilities must recognize customers’ “fears are real” when addressing advantages of the new technology.

CEO Joseph Rigby said Pepco has found good customer response from training call center personnel, who are the customer’s primary contact point, to spend more time with each customer and act as “energy advisors.”

Scott Wilson of ScottMadden said some utilities train field forces in their smart grid strategy, so they can answer questions on the job about why the work is being done. Such informal communications have proven positive, he said.

Hallquist said utilities can’t possible figure out what all customers want. The focus, he said, should be on using new technology to “make the system responsive.”

One difficulty everyone is facing, said Ken Wacks of Home & Utility Systems, is that aging infrastructure and new environmental requirements will force up power costs no matter what. The new technology can’t mean lower prices, he said, but it can dampen inevitable increases.