According to a recent U.S. survey from Pike Research, consumer support for renewable energy sources is extremely high, with 79 percent having a favorable view of solar energy, and 75 percent having a favorable view of wind energy. By contrast, only 37 percent of U.S. consumers have a favorable view of smart meters and the Smart Grid. These findings should be of particular concern for utilities investing in Smart Grid development to enable greater penetration of highly variable renewable energy sources like solar and wind.
Although it is unclear whether the 63 percent that do not find the Smart Grid to be favorable have a negative opinion about it or just don’t understand it, education is necessary either way. With issues being caused by smart meter “opt-out” programs, utilities are quickly figuring out that consumer acceptance is a key factor in successful Smart Grid deployment.
As utilities and most energy stakeholders know, the current energy network infrastructure in the U.S. is not built to allow for many distributed feed-in points, and even if some feed-in is allowed at the local distribution level, the transmission-level infrastructure cannot accommodate it. Rapid fluctuations in distributed generation, like that caused by windy or cloudy weather, present significant challenges to power engineers who need to ensure stable power levels by varying the output of the more controllable generators, such as gas turbines and hydroelectric generators. Smart Grid technology is necessary for very large amounts of renewable electricity on the grid for this reason.
In a nutshell, we need the Smart Grid in order to integrate more solar and wind at scale. So why are consumers not making the connection?
The most obvious answer is that most Americans do not understand how the Smart Grid benefits them. Despite the educational resources provided to the public by the federal government and local utilities, explaining the concept of Smart Grid and its benefits, most consumers will arguably not understand how the Smart Grid truly impacts them until it changes something about their lives in a memorable way. Until then, any stated benefits are just a promise that may not be satisfied for many years.
There is also the issue of the public’s perception of utilities. Many utilities are facing the challenges of not having had to interact with consumers until now, so it is not surprising when some people view the claims of Smart Grid’s benefits with skepticism.
With all of these issues, how are utilities supposed to help people (skeptics and all) tangibly understand something that will not affect them until it’s rolled out? While industry professionals are still debating how to effectively address Smart Grid rollout, it is becoming increasingly clear that utilities and others involved with Smart Grid planning and deployment must not only do a better job connecting the Smart Grid to things people value—lower costs, better reliability, more flexibility, job growth, and access to clean energy like solar and wind—but they must also earn public trust by becoming more transparent about the whole story behind grid modernization in order to make consumer support more sustainable in the longer term.
Why do you think consumers are not connecting the Smart Grid with widespread access to renewable energy? What are the major barriers to public understanding?
By: Elaine Hsieh, global business strategist, DNV KEMA Energy & Sustainability