Let me start by saying that I don't believe that you can ever have too much information when it comes to making important decisions.
And that's what the "Smart Grid" movement that is sweeping this country is all about, according to proponents. Smart grid technology refers to devices that transmit real-time price information for electricity or sends some other kind of signal directly to consumers, allowing them to determine how to use energy more efficiently.
"A lot of customers don't have a clue what their bill is going to be until it arrives," said Joe Thomas, The United Illuminating Co.'s vice president of client fulfillment. "With Smart Grid technology, we could set it up so a customer would receive and e-mail when the amount of electricity they've used reaches $100."
UI is seeking a $37.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to help fund improvements to its distribution network. If it gets the grant, the New Haven-based utility would match the federal money with an equal amount of its own to upgrade its Smart Grid capabilities.
But while smart grids have become a media buzz word, some fear that the technology might reach too far into our homes and businesses, ultimately taking control of decisions that should reside with the individual consumer.
"My concern is it’s a step towards having the RTOs (Regional Transmission Organizations like grid operator ISO-New England) tell us when we can run things,” Robert Beaumont, chairman of Wallingford's Public Utilities Commission, said last month. “I see the feds pushing this and I’m skeptical.”
Beaumont is not alone in his concerns.
A plan announced last month by Northeast Utilities - one which is seeking grant money from the same pool at the Department of Energy - is drawing criticism from Massachusetts Attorney General Martha Coakley.
The NU plan calls for the utility's Western Massachusetts Electric Co. subsidiary to launch a pilot program that would have some low-income customers pay for electricity in advance, while others would be charged a premium for any power used beyond 300 kilowatt hours per month. WMECO wants to launch the program, which is currently before utility regulators in Massachusetts, sometime next summer.
But even as Smart Grid opponents say "don't believe the hype" that comes with the technology, its supporters say the criticism is misguided. Smart Grid supporters say any suggestion that the widespread use of the technology is another step toward a society in which the government knows and sees our every move - a la George Orwell's "1984" - is nothing more than fear-mongering.
"We need to step back from the hype surrounding Smart Grids," UI's Thomas says. "We do monitor home owners systems now and all we're trying to do (with the grant money) is build upon the partnership that we already have with customers. But if they don't want to make use of the information that the technology can provide, well, ultimately it's their call."
UI began upgrading its distribution network about six years ago, Thomas said, and already has some capabilities that would fall under the Smart Grid definition. For example, the company is already able to remotely read its customers' electric meters twice a day, he said.
The next step, he said, is interactive communication that allows the utility and the consumer to communicate in real time.
As part of its $75 million Smart Grid upgrade plan, UI wants to install 80,000 advanced technology meters in some of its customers' homes that would allow for such two-way communication, Thomas said. The utility also wants to install 15,000 high-tech display systems in homes, he said.
The displays systems "would tell you how much electricity you are using and how much it costs, all in real time," Thomas said.
Part of the Smart Grid improvements the utility is proposing are designed to prepare UI's distribution network for the consumer launch of electric-powered cars, said Joe Ballantine, associate vice president of business strategy & development with UI.
That phase of the upgrade is expected to be ready for use sometime before the end of 2012, he said. The Chevy Volt, one of the nation's first electric cars available via the mass market, is scheduled to make its debut late next year.
"You need to have a smart grid that recognizes when a customer is plugging their car," said Ballantine. "They take a lot of current and there could be a problem if you and your neighbors all try to plug in at the same."
I try to be open to new technologies. But I'll be honest with you: I would find the idea that someone would know when I was recharging my electric car to be a little creepy.
So it would seem to me that if the Smart Grid technology is to be successful is this country over the long haul, one of the hurdles that will have to be overcome is convincing the average consumers that Big Brother isn't watching.