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A High-Tech Gadget that Saves Money and Creates Jobs

Frances Beinecke

Posted December 10, 2008

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It used to be that talk of the nation's electricity grid caused most people's eyes to glaze over. Now, thanks to a confluence of volatile energy prices, a green-oriented incoming president, and a cultural fascination with high tech gadgets, that seems to be changing. Something called "smart meters" are leading the charge.

Last week the New York Times ran a piece about President-elect Obama plans to tie economic stimulus to investments in clean energy. Smart meters were the second solution listed, coming right after weatherizing homes.

What is a smart meter, anyway? It is a device that gives real-time, highly specific information about how much electricity your home or office is using at any given time. It sends that information to your utility--which can then make projections about how much power it needs to generate when. But it can also send the information directly to you, so you can asses your own energy use.

A few weeks ago, I heard Dan Reicher, the director of Google's climate and energy initiatives, tell this story about how smart meters work (See the clip of Dan and Google CEO Eric Schmidt talking about clean energy at my colleague Phil Gutis' blog.)

Dan said that one of Google's engineers installed a smart meter in his house. Very quickly, the engineer noticed that not only did his kitchen refrigerator soak up a lot of electricity, but so did the second, back-up refrigerator--the one he forgot he had most of the time. The engineer went online and found out that the fridges were built more than 20 years ago and were among the biggest energy hogs ever made.

Armed with this information, the engineer replaced both refrigerators with far more efficient models and watched his household electricity use drop by 50 percent. (And because he lived in California, his utility paid to cart those old fridges away and capture the CFCs from the insulation.)

Do you think the engineer--or any of us--would have made the same decision based on that hard-to-interpret utility bill that comes in the mail once a month? Those bills may tell you how much you owe and where to send the check, but they say very little about the opportunities waiting in your home for reducing electricity, cutting global warming pollution, and saving money.

We all could use clearer signals on how to become more efficient. I confess that my daughter has resorted to putting yellow post-it notes around our house to remind me to turn off the lights at the end of the night. I think a smart meter that sends me information to my Blackberry might be more effective.

Dan Reicher gets the updates from his smart meter on his laptop. He was on the road recently and after reviewing the data on his home's electrical use, he called his wife and said, "Honey, you know those two lights in the front hall? I think you left them on."

This is a culture that thrives on information. We get it from all sides--news sites, handheld devices, Twitter accounts. It's time we got information from our own homes as well--information that could help us reduce the single largest source of global warming pollution in our nation: the electricity sector.

And as Obama's initial economic stimulus plans indicate, installing all those smart meters were create a lot of jobs as well.

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Jim BullisDec 11 2008 12:53 PM

No, his utility did not pay to cart away the refrigerators. They just handled the transaction. The rate payers paid.

The bill is not so hard to understand. Look at the line "public programs" to see who pays. Of course they don't give a breakdown.

But come on, it is really quite easy to know how much energy each appliance uses, and it is certainly not necessary to keep it in your knowledge base in real time.

So lets not add this bit of fluff to the real job of reducing energy usage.

Google would be better advised to spend its corporate engineering capabilities reviewing their freshman physics books. They should pay attention to the part on entropy, particularly the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Then they would be able to tell their CEO that plug-in hybrids do not get anything close to 100 mpg.

Of course it seems probable that the "100 mpg" number came from the "100+ MPG" painted on the converted Prius cars. The first clue that this is bogus is that the actual claim as stated, "100+ MPG" is actually technical gibberish. The way to know this is to ask what the "+" means. Then you find out that the number could just as well be "5000 MPG+" or "50 MPG+." When a specification is absolutely undefined, it should not be taken seriously.

We can talk about the actual effect of cobbling extra batteries into a Prius if anyone really is interested in energy. And the impact is vastly more important than any benefit that could come from this "smart" meter.

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