Saturday, December 19, 2009


Where were you when the corn ethanol revolution happened? Actually, that revolution didn’t turn out so well. Revolutions are supposed to be by the people, for the people kinds of things. But this one was by the US government, for the special interests. Not surprisingly, it ended up harming the people – in this case by contributing to a worldwide food crisis that exacerbated hunger in the developing world, social unrest and global recession.

Observing today’s hype about smart meters, I can’t help thinking about corn ethanol. Why? Because the benefits of corn ethanol, such as they were, didn't amount to sustainable, widespread energy or economic benefits. The numbers didn't add up – and I don’t yet see them adding up for smart meters.

Advocates of smart meters primarily tout them as devices that will benefit consumers. They emphasize the savings the meters will encourage by allowing consumers to ‘see’ what energy they are using; the idea being that more informed consumers will make better choices about their energy use.

This argument is only true up to a point. The deeper substance is often missed, which is that information by itself has not been shown to be a sufficient motivator for energy conservation (or for that matter, other outcomes that require behavioral change, such as weight loss or quitting smoking). In which case, the potential impact of this fundamental selling point is debatable. (I’ve written in some detail about the behavioral stuff here).

Another proposed benefit is that, where utilities have variable rates (electricity prices that vary during the day based on supply, demand, generation type and/or time of day), their customers can save money by adjusting their heavy electricity usage to occur during times of lower prices. This of course may not always be practical for the consumer, and in any case doesn’t apply to most of the Caribbean.

For now, it seems that the biggest beneficiaries of smart meters are likely to be the utilities themselves – the main benefit being that the electricity company can read the installed smart meters remotely from a central place, thereby eliminating the cost of sending out meter readers.

Billions of dollars are being spent by utilities and governments worldwide on smart metering programmes. Just this month, the British government unveiled an ambitious plan to install smart meters in all of the country’s 26 million homes by 2020, at a price tag of £8.5 billion. Their estimate is that the plan will allow the power industry and consumers to save £14.5 billion. Caribbean utilities are following suit with their own, much-smaller-scale smart metering programmes (but no word on what they’re spending yet).

But what about the energy and carbon balance of all this?

A smart meter is a complex thing. After it is designed it must be manufactured, using energy, materials and components (glass, plastic, metals, integrated circuits and so on). Then it must be packaged in a box (which itself must be manufactured), then shipped in a truck, train, ship or plane. Then it is taken to the customer’s home (more driving) and installed. At that point, after being responsible for a long chain of energy use and carbon emissions, the meter is meant to help reduce the customer’s energy use and carbon emissions.

In some cases, the smart meters will be designed to be linked up to in-home displays and also to other monitoring devices and systems connected to (or built into) electrical outlets or appliances. All this is so that a consumer can get a complete, detailed array of information about his or her energy use, at any given minute. In other words: more information – but also more devices, which means more materials, manufacturing, packaging, shipping, energy used and carbon emitted.

All of this raises a few questions.

What impact will all of these devices have when they finally get into the home and are plugged in or equipped with batteries (yet another device)? Will the energy savings and carbon reductions encouraged by the meter over its lifetime be sufficient to offset its own direct and indirect energy and carbon footprint?

Remember the paperless office? The widespread use of computers and digital imaging technology was supposed to eliminate paper documents by allowing us to digitize written communications. We would, the argument went, use far less paper because, thanks to technology, we wouldn’t need to. Well, that didn’t happen. On the contrary, according to The Myth of the Paperless Office, a book by Sellen and Harper published by MIT, the use of email in an organization causes an average 40% increase in paper consumption.

Smart meters will probably work out for the utilities that deploy them. But on the consumer side, this looks to be another example of trying to attack a problem of behaviour (how we consume energy) by throwing yet another device at it. And we already know how other examples of applying technology to behavioral problems have been working out.