Why Smart Meters Might Be a Dumb Idea (cont.)

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We could write pages on exactly how these in-home monitoring systems work, but the short version is that if you buy all of the necessary accessories, you’ll be able to program your major electricity-using appliances and devices to respond to pricing and peak-demand signals that are sent to your network by the electric company. In other words, you’ll be able to program your network to automatically turn off devices whenever the price for electricity exceeds what you want to pay. And you’ll be able to change your energy-use settings via the Internet by using your computer or smartphone. For instance, you’ll be able to program the in-home monitoring system to shut down air conditioning or dial back heaters when you leave home and start them up before you return. Of course, you can do much the same thing with today’s programmable thermostats. But they aren’t equipped to receive and respond to price and peak-demand signals from your electric company or your own signals through the Internet, if for instance, you decide to come home earlier or later than usual.

Although this capability sounds pretty cool, it has the ability to burn a hole in your wallet. Even the most basic of in-home monitoring devices should cost at least $100 but can run up to $350 for a more complex system, according to Tendril, which makes in-home monitoring systems. Those prices reflect what Tendril is charging utilities to buy the devices in bulk for pilot projects, so it’s safe to assume that the price that consumers will pay at retail will be higher.

Meanwhile, appliances that have embedded chips that allow them to work wirelessly with in-home monitoring systems could arrive on the market this year, Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers says. Nobody is saying how much these new models will cost, but you can expect that they’ll be at the high end of each appliance category. So, for example, it wouldn’t surprise us if refrigerators that have smart chips cost at least $2,000.

Moreover, if your in-home monitor doesn’t directly control your heating and air-conditioning system, you can expect to shell out another $300 or so for a smart thermostat that can communicate with the in-home monitoring system.

It should come as no surprise that Google is pressing utilities to allow third-party companies (such as Google) to have access to smart-meter data too, so these companies can create in-home monitoring services for consumers. Google’s pursuit underscores the variety of system choices that you’ll eventually have for remotely controlling and monitoring your home-energy use.

Third-party access to smart-meter data also raises the prospect of telecom companies bundling home-electricity monitoring to the package of telephone, Internet and TV services that they already offer. Industry experts note that smart meters even have piqued the interest of the cable industry, which envisions letting you manage your home-electricity use by using your remote control and your TV. Such systems should begin to appear around 2015, experts estimate.

There also are emerging doubts about how long that the digital equipment—including the meters themselves—that is used in smart-meter systems will last. Some experts wonder whether the industry has planned obsolescence in mind, which would force consumers to pay for new hardware and software—and corresponding upgrades at the electric company to read the new devices—every few years.

For instance, the electricity industry typically has planned that its meters would last up to 25 years, according to Mike Hyland, who is senior vice president of engineering services for American Public Power Association. However, the companies that make smart meters, he says, have been suggesting that the meters might need to be replaced as often as every 3 years to keep up with technical innovations.

POWER PLAY. We understand when the smart-meter industry says that upgrading its digital devices to take advantage of the latest technologies is necessary if smart-meter providers are to deliver the maximum benefit to consumers. But why in the world should consumers have to keep paying for technology that they’re forced to adopt? Ask the federal government.

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