EPB smart meters a benefit

It's become pro forma behavior for tea party types to see bogeymen behind every government program. They attacked a regional growth plan proposal here two weeks ago, for instance, on an irrational fear of loss of property rights. But even for anti-government conspiracy junkies, it's an absurd stretch of the imagination to worry that the EPB "smart grid" and the broadband electric meters that go with it could figure in a "slippery slope" scenario toward a government conspiracy to monitor personal at-home behavior through energy consumption.

A smart-grid does not portend an Orwellian takeover of one's ovens and air conditioners, dishwashers and water heaters, even in the noble cause of energy conservation. It certainly doesn't suggest secret surveillance of electricity use to determine a resident's activities or time away from home, as some tea party members here suggest they fear.

The meters are designed simply to let local power distributors - eventually throughout the TVA region and other parts of the country - accumulate real-time data in mass on energy usage patterns in order for utilities to deliver power more efficiently and cost-effectively. They're also designed to help electric utilities pinpoint and respond more quickly and efficiently to power outrages, and to let consumers benefit, if they choose, from new time-of-use electric rates as the electric industry works to become more cost-efficient.

None of this is something to dread or fear. It's also not something that the EPB, or TVA, or other American electric utilities can or should avoid.

To ensure an adequate and affordable national power supply - especially in hours of peak demand - the electric power industry must become more efficient. To do so, it is preparing to shift to variable time-of-use rates, which are lower in off-peak hours where overall demand for electricity is lower, and higher in periods of peak demand. The goal is to level demand by reducing expensive peak demand spikes, which require utilities to build and maintain more, and more costly, generation capacity.

Smart meters won't show energy consumption outside the home, but they will enable residents, for their convenience, to view their real-time energy use and per-kilowatthour prices on interior read-out thermostats and select television channels.

When the electric utility shifts to time-of-use rates, customers can then decide if they want, for example, to wash clothes at more expensive times, say 5 p.m., or at an off-peak hour, like 9 or 10 p.m., when other customers are shutting down activity, lowering thermostats and going to bed. They may also choose to take advantage of cycling equipment or utility signals - which would require additional wiring and a resident's consent - to turn off water heaters and other equipment at key hours, and bring them on when they need them.

When the time comes for time-of-use rates, and it almost certainly will, consumers will see the benefits of the cost savings they can choose to accept, in comparison with the cost of rejecting such new benefits.

The tea partyers here who object to growth planning and, now, energy efficiency seem to be closing their minds to the realities of growth and the concomitant diminishment of natural resources, and bowing down to whacky conspiracy theories about a United Nations "Agenda 21" set of voluntary goals. But Americans are unlikely to become zombies to government control simply because they choose to plan for the future and manage their resources, energy and infrastructure better. The apt maxim is, we will manage change, or change will manage us.