“Smart grid” initiatives can take many forms, from improving existing generation, transmission and distribution systems with new technology and software to rolling out smart meters and consumer devices. Although the media often focuses its attention on smart meters and appliances, many electric cooperatives and other utilities have been working for years to improve the communications backbone of their systems and provide greater integration of system components. Such improvements are necessary to set the stage for introducing smart grid technology that directly affects consumers, such as smart meters.
Many utilities in the United States are now introducing smart meters and related technology, but what impact will this actually have on consumers and their relationship with their utility? The degree of impact depends in part on the “smart meter” functions that the utility actually turns on. Some functions improve the distribution system without directly impacting consumer behavior, such as improvements in outage detection and data reliability. However, if the utility intends (or is required by regulators) to use smart meters to move to different consumer pricing structures, the result could be a dramatic change in how consumers perceive their utility and use electricity. Success will require more than simply installing new equipment; it calls for careful planning and systematic consumer education programs.