Ten years ago, I was asked not to talk about energy and climate change. I had just been hired to lead a new nonprofit created to represent consumer interests in smart grid deployments. The advice came from one of my board members: “Climate change is too controversial,” she warned. “The industry isn’t ready.”
In fact, it was my passion for environmental causes that fueled my desire to advocate for smart energy. I had been the executive director of the Georgia chapter of the Sierra Club, founded for the enjoyment and protection of the earth’s wild places. Earlier in my career, I had researched smart energy at one of North America’s top science and engineering universities. I knew smart energy had tremendous potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help heal an ailing planet.
My board member wasn’t issuing a gag order; she shared my interest in conservation. She was simply urging me to bide my time and focus on the many other compelling benefits of smart energy and grid modernization.
I heeded her advice for 10 years – until Dec. 4 in Fredericton, New Brunswick. I had been invited by the Smart Grid Innovation Network to address more than 75 business and community leaders. The group, representing technology and energy companies, institutions of higher learning, social and environmental advocacy groups, and public service, had convened to explore ways to fight climate change with smart energy. My message: Climate change cannot be solved without a transformation to smart energy.
The mission of my organization, the Smart Energy Consumer Collaborative (SECC), is to talk to consumers about energy and technology and represent their interests back to industry. We perform extensive research to understand consumer attitudes and needs – to the point where the SECC now has the largest longitudinal study on consumers and smart energy in North America.
Across the board, throughout every demographic and nearly all age groups, we have found that once consumers are aware of the technology and its benefits, they support it. They recognize its potential for saving money and reducing power outages – benefits proven by companies throughout North America.
For example, after installing smart meters, BC Hydro in British Columbia created a mobile phone app that is now used by more than one million customers, many of whom save more than $150 a year. During the Polar Vortex in January 2019, when headlines declared it to be as cold in Chicago as it was on Planet Mars, ComEd, the largest utility in Illinois, experienced 45 percent fewer outages and avoided 280,000 power interruptions as a result of its smart grid deployment.
While smart energy is essential to meeting climate change goals, the good news is that these upgrades also meet consumer demand. We live in a 24/7-connected era in which consumers compare the service they receive from their utility to other services they receive from banking, cable and online shopping sites like eBay and Amazon. As a consumer said in one of our surveys, “The best customer service I receive anywhere is the customer service I expect everywhere.”
Among the benefits utility customers could receive after grid modernization is the ability to see their energy usage online throughout the month, instead of at the end of the month. Consumers can also set an electricity bill target and receive an alert if their spending is too high to meet that target. In some jurisdictions, consumers receive an alert when the power is turned back on after an outage.
Besides these important benefits, consumers are able to enroll in new programs that address their unique needs and values. For example, consumers who care about saving money can participate in programs that offer incentives for saving electricity. Consumers who value technology – the people who purchase smart thermostats, rooftop solar, electric vehicles or home energy management systems – would be able to connect these technologies to their energy data.
Consumers who care a great deal about conservation and clean energy can participate in programs to improve energy efficiency and reduce energy waste and greenhouse gas emissions.
To my mind, the environmental benefits offer the most persuasive arguments for investments in upgrading the electric grid:
- Smart grid technologies like smart meters provide consumers with detailed information on their energy use. Studies show that when people are equipped with this knowledge, they see a five to 15 percent reduction in energy use.
- Smart energy accommodates more widespread use of renewable energy, such as wind and solar. These sources of energy are wildly variable and impossible to manage at scale without the automation enabled by a smart grid.
- By 2022, there will be more than 100 new electric vehicle models available. Imagine how much CO2 we could save by enabling smart charging of EVs using renewable energy.
Now that renewables are cheap enough to compete with fossil fuels like coal and natural gas, their continued entry into the energy resource mix is assured. There is simply no way the grid built in the late 1800s can accommodate the amount of renewable energy required to address climate change.
Clearly, it is past time we started focusing on how smart energy and grid modernization can address climate change. It is all well and good to carry reusable metal straws, shun plastic bags and reduce, reuse and recycle; but smart energy gives us powerful tools to fight climate change at the faster pace and larger scale that is urgently required.
The time to speak up was yesterday. The time to act is now.
This essay originally appeared in the Telegraph Journal in New Brunswick, Canada on Monday, Jan. 13.