You can’t find many utilities that have done a better job of trying to introduce the benefits of smart grid to customers than the municipal utility of Naperville, Illinois. With a nice mix of 57,000 residential and business customers, the company has received an $11 million matching grant from DOE for a $22 million meter deployment. It has a team of 28, well-trained Smart Grid Ambassadors to help form a community of what it calls ‘Smart Customers’ to get ready for the full Smart Meter installation program which is scheduled for completion in early 2013.
Interviewed for Transmission and Distribution World Magazine, Nadja Lalvani, Community Relations Manager, for the City of Naperville Lalvani explained, “When we first learned we were getting the smart grid investment grant, we realized that this was going to take an extensive amount of external communication to build awareness, educate our customers, get people engaged and ultimately get them to participate. In Naperville, we always say our greatest asset is our residents. They are active, well-educated and they care: They really care. So, that is where the idea for the Smart Grid Ambassadors came from.”
With all that preparation you’d think things would go smoothly, right?
You’d be wrong.
The Naperville Sun reported that things got testy at a city council meeting following opponents filing of a petition for a referendum on the meter installations. “Opponents… said they have health concerns about the meters, think the project is too expensive and are also worried about the ability of people to hack into the system and glean information about residents….The anti-Smart Grid group made its presence felt at the Council meeting, with the tone between them and Council members quickly turning acrimonious.” (see Smart Grid debate turns heated http://napervillesun.suntimes.com/news/8882451-418/smart-grid-debate-turns-heated.html)
The major stated objections were related to health effects. The opponents reminded the council that “…the radio frequencies emitted by the Smart Meters were the same as a cell phone…which had been categorized as a class 2B carcinogen by the World Health Organization.”
And on it went.
But the bottom line here isn’t really the health risks. I bet most of the opponents (and many of their children) own cellphones, sometimes skip the seat belt or woof down a cheeseburger. The problem is that most residential customers (the ratepayers with voting power) don’t see any benefit attached to potential risks and increased costs (small as they may be).
They also are suspicious of the government (and its grants, ala Sloyndra et al) and big business (including utilities) in general. (see Residential Smart Grid Could Be A Tough Sell: Two Recent Polls Tell Us Why )
This is just the latest of a number of ratepayer protests regarding smart meters. So, maybe we just need to own up that, yes, smart meters may improve reliability indices and have other operational benefits that make a distribution engineer drool, but they won’t have much near term, perceivable residential customer benefits.
Otherwise we could end up with a “Occupy Utility Boardroom” movement.