Smart Meters Won’t Work if People Don’t Understand Electricity Basics

Photo by Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Smart meters are a grand concept in consumer empowerment and incentivizing energy conservation. The digital meters track your electricity use and break it down so you can make better—or, in their words, smarter—decisions about, say, when to charge the electric car that may sit in your garage one day.  (They also communicate with the power company so they don’t have to send someone creeping on your property to check the meter.)

The meters have inspired rage from a small group of activists who claim that they are dangerous and invade your privacy. In IEEE Spectrum this summer, G. Pascal Zachary called it “the most intense organized opposition to a technological artifact since vaccines were tagged (wrongly) with causing autism in kids.” (Disclosure: Zachary is a professor at Arizona State’s Consortium for Science Policy & Outcomes; ASU is part of the Future Tense partnership.)

But there’s perhaps an even bigger problem to making smart meters work: People just don’t get how electricity metering works. Ariel Schwartz writes in Fast Company that a new study from IBM reveals that most of us struggle with basic facts about electrical utilities.

IBM’s survey of over 10,000 people in 15 countries revealed that 30% of people surveyed don’t know what the term “dollar per kwh” means (or the equivalent in their country), over 60% of people don’t know what a smart grid or smart meter is, and over half don’t know if their utility has a clean energy program.

These data could be skewed by people who live in places that haven’t embraced smart meter technology the way the U.S. has of late. But I suspect that if you informally surveyed people on the street—poor scientific method, I know!—the results wouldn’t be much different.

Those who don’t understand how smart meters work are, unsurprisingly, less likely to consider it a useful technology.  “Once people understand what the technology does, they think highly of it—and once that happens, it becomes more likely that they will pay attention to variable electricity pricing,” writes Schwartz.

Read more on Fast Company.