The campaign to conserve electricity in the home needs to pay more attention to consumers and not just fix on the gee-whiz technology of smart meters, a leading energy conservation advocacy organization says.

The American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) released a report yesterday summarizing 57 pilot tests of household energy conservation strategies in this country and abroad, finding that annual electricity savings ranged from 4 to 12 percent.

The good news from the tests is that consumers can trim their electricity consumption significantly, said Steven Nadel, ACEEE's executive director.

"The bad news is that smart meters alone don't get the job done," said Nadel, taking issue with the swarm of attention surrounding the accelerating rollout of smart meters around the country.

To realize the potential savings in household electricity use, consumers must be provided a range of "positive reinforcement" through up-to-the-minute feedback showing them that their conservation efforts matter, he said.

Many utilities are deploying smart meters for their own business purposes, ACEEE concludes. The devices eliminate the need for meter readers, permit remote customer connections and disconnects, and speed restoration of service after storms.

But programs to enlist consumer support are lagging, the council contends. "No U.S. utilities are providing the full range of needed services we recommend," said Karen Ehrhardt-Martinez, senior research associate at the University of Colorado's Renewable And Sustainable Energy Institute, one of the report's authors. Non-utility service providers, such as Google's PowerMeter energy usage tracker, could take up the slack, says ACEEE.

"There is a lot we could be doing to help every Americans to become part of the solution," Ehrhardt-Martinez said.

Confusion lingers from Md. decision
The ACEE report does not give similar weight to proposals for real-time or time-of-use pricing -- controversial policies that would permit utilities to vary their electricity rates during the day based on the costs they pay for wholesale power. Some leading analysts argue that unless consumers see, and pay for, the true cost of power when demand peaks, they won't have the financial motivation to turn off appliances or shift thermostat settings in the heat of the day, or run the laundry at night, when prices fall.

Ehrhardt-Martinez said the ACEEE study shows that some programs have achieved large electricity savings with the economic motivation of time-of-use rates.

"The focus on financial benefits may backfire," said John "Skip" Laitner, ACEEE's director of economic and social analysis. It is more critical to appeal to people's sense of responsibility as energy consumers, he said. Feedback that shows customers how their energy use changes when they try to conserve and how they stack up in comparison with their neighbors can be a powerful motivator, he said.

Last week's decision by the Maryland Public Service Commission to reject a smart meter deployment plan by Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., the state's largest utility, was based in large part on the regulators' disapproval of the utility's plan to collect the program's costs up front through a customer surcharge, Nadel noted.

But it also reflected the commission's doubts about the potential benefits of time-of-use electricity rates, Nadel said. "Yeah, there's some skepticism there," he said. The BGE's proposal "gave them a convenient hook to just say, 'Sorry.'" The Maryland commission invited BG&E to submit a revised plan, but it said it would not approve mandatory time-of-use rates.

How do you make consumers smarter?
The commission concluded that BG&E's proposal "contains no concrete, detailed customer education plan, includes no orbs or other in-home displays, and provides for grossly inadequate messaging, in our view, to trigger the behavior changes contemplated under the proposal." BG&E said it was stunned by the decision, particularly in light of its successful pilot programs to test consumer responses to household electricity conservation programs.

The challenge of winning consumer support for smart meter strategies and real time pricing has loomed larger and larger in energy forums over the past year, particularly after smart meter installations in Bakersfield, Calif., triggered consumers' complaints that their bills had shot up after the new equipment was installed.

State regulators want some certainty that time-of-use rates will work for consumers, Nadel said. "They don't want to be perceived as just rolling the dice" on the question, he said.

Nadel noted that 24 states have clean energy policies calling for increased energy efficiency and conservation. A full-fledged consumer education program supports these policies, he said.

Utilities with smart meter strategies, and vendors who make the equipment, agree that consumer education is essential. But smart meter advocates say new pricing policies are equally necessary as the nation moves toward a future of distributed rooftop solar units and plug-in electric hybrid vehicles -- technologies that are inseparably linked to hourly changes in energy use.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500