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Smart Meters
Alex Steffen, 19 May 06

We need to learn how to get the lives we want while using a fraction of the energy we use now. The British government is taking some steps in that direction by promoting the widespread adoption of "smart meters":

Advocates of so-called "smart meters" say the information provided by the devices can revolutionise the way households consume energy, and can reduce demand by up to 10%.
The domestic sector in the UK is responsible for about one-third of the nation's carbon emissions, and the government has become increasingly focused on the need for greater energy efficiency in the nation's homes. Tony Blair on Tuesday ... said the twin aims of cutting harmful emissions and improving security of supplies meant that "a step-change in energy efficiency" was "back on the agenda with a vengeance". ...[S]mart meters are vital if these goals are to be realised.

We talk a lot about "smart" energy meters, but we talk even more about the principles -- design-for-awareness approaches, feedback-triggered change, ambient technologies, visible consumption and -- which help make visible the invisible.

I'd go so far as to say it is a principle of bright green design that revealed flows, properly handled, are beautiful, and that being un-aware of one's effects on the world is crass and ugly. But beyond the aesthetics, there are good reasons for revealing the hidden. By knowing what we use and where it's going, we can eliminate much of the waste which currently defines the Global Northern lifestyle (by, for instance, ridding the home of vampire power losses. Even more importantly, while abstract moral exhortations to conserve often have limited effect show people their energy use, and they use less. If we are going to be as efficient a society as sustainability demands, smart meters are just the first step.

It'd be even better if the meters themselves were designed to allow net metering and microgrids and thus facilitated distributed energy, helping to encourage not only conservation but citizen efforts to generate renewable power at home.

(thanks David!)

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These look neat - I want one! Toronto Hydro is considering a pilot project with volunteer customers to charge different rates depending on time of day usage. It would be excellent if customers could monitor an interface like this to manage their consumption at different times of day.

Posted by: Margaret on 19 May 06

Hydro-Quebec is also talking about that. I wish they'd invest in smart meters in which you can plug a nice graphical monitor that you can have inside the house.

One of the problem with the meters here is that you never see them..

Posted by: Michael G. Richard on 19 May 06

It'd be nice if these reports became a bit judgemental and told you when you were being a pig with your energy consumption :) I wonder if there'd be lawsuits.

The judgement could be done by comparing your consumption against averages, perhaps... or against historical data for your account based on time of year.

Posted by: mattbg on 20 May 06

A good way to get to people would be to extrapolate what it would cost them over a year (and the next 5, 10, 15 years) from current power use (or the day's average).

So by unplugging stuff and making changes, they'd see a bigger difference in the projected results instead of just the smaller numbers for that day.

Posted by: Michael G. Richard on 20 May 06

That's a good idea: extrapolate the difference in disposable income someone will experience through a given behavioral change. Swap all your blubs for CFLs and you'll have $42 a year more to spend as you like... that sort of thing.

Posted by: Alex Steffen on 20 May 06

Yeah, and with high-tech sensors like the one shown in the picture of this post, you can have the hybrid-car effect; the fuel economy feedback changes the way people drive and it becomes almost like a game to improve your "score".

I'm fairly sure a similar effect would happen in houses equipped with these energy monitors.

Posted by: Michael G. Richard on 20 May 06

Semi-famous, perhaps apocryphal story: a development of identical town houses was built in the Netherlands, except a large portion had electrical and gas meters out of sight in basements and the rest had the meters in the entrance halls. Guess which townhouses consistently had lower energy consumption? Make the meters visible, compelling and easy to read, and who knows what could happen?

Posted by: David Foley on 21 May 06



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