Why smart meters need to be more like smart phones

Guest Author

Twenty years ago, a phone was just a phone, and you’d have to look elsewhere for maps, music and more. Today, thanks to the influence of consumer-facing companies like Apple and Google, smartphones have created an entirely new market for mobile applications for consumers. The same thing could—and should—happen with smart meters.

Smart meters measure how much electricity and other types of energy buildings use primarily for billing purposes and to help utilities run the power grid.

Introduced in 2006, smart meters were initially envisioned as a way to help customers better manage energy use. But they operate largely on data in the past (typically 15-minute averages delayed by hours or days), which make them incompatible with our always-connected, always-updated world.

It’s like printing out digital maps to refer to in the car. They used to be useful, but most of us now use live maps on our phones so we know where we are in the moment and what the traffic is like up ahead. Without this real-time experience, Google Maps and thousands of other mobile applications would never have achieved the success and engagement levels that we all experience.

When we started Sense in 2013 with the goal of making homes more energy efficient, everyone told us we couldn’t get consumers interested in energy. Since the average consumer spends only eight minutes per year interacting with their utility online, we shouldn’t bother to try because consumers are fundamentally not interested in their energy bills.

The apparent lack of consumers’ interest misses the main problem, which is that smart meters are like printed maps in our digital world. Just as mobile phone applications would not have succeeded based solely on historical data sent to your phone company, it’s no surprise that utilities have not been able to engage consumers using existing smart meters.

And like the transformation of phones, the utility meter can become a key platform for a range of consumer-facing applications, including (but not limited to) Sense.

We need to get out of the mindset that meters make data, the data goes someplace, and then applications and analytics are based on that static data. The current discussions among regulators and utilities are about data resolution, where the data goes and who gets access. These are reasonable arguments but miss the key point: as long as utility meters only provide access to static historical data, they will never yield engaging consumer applications.

I see three clear lessons we can glean from the success of consumer applications on smart phones.

First, we need devices—smart meters in this case—to have the ability to run a variety of applications.

Second, these applications need real-time access to the right data, like location for Google Maps on phones and high-resolution power data in the case of applications like Sense on meters.

Finally, we need to connect smart meters with better communication networks. Smart phones did not take off until the telecom data networks became good enough—with enough reliability and speed to support real-time applications. Existing utility networks were designed for historical meter data and cannot provide real-time experiences, but Wi-Fi and cellular can solve the problem.

We need better smart meters for their own sake—just like we need online maps to find our way no matter where we’re going. With smart meters, though, our collective destination matters most: tackling climate change. Clean and efficient electricity, empowered by smart meters, will be increasingly central to our world’s attempts to reduce emissions.

We need changes in how energy is consumed to enable utilities to meet their decarbonization goals. We need homes to be more efficient users of energy, we need to electrify more and more end uses, and we need demand flexibility to enable more use of variable low-carbon energy sources. Even with increasing automation of devices in homes, consumer decision-making will continue to have a big impact on how energy is used in their homes.

Consumers want to participate and want to have visibility and control over their costs, internal surveys we’ve conducted show. In our increasingly connected world, we need to give consumers tools and applications to better manage their homes. By adopting the latest generation of smart meters, which can run applications like Sense, utilities can play a central role in making homes smart—with benefits to the planet and your electricity bill.