Survey shows customers know little about the program or how to use the smart devices to save money
By Julie Wernau, Chicago Tribune reporter
Patricia Gipson is the kind of person Commonwealth Edison says its smart meters are designed to help.
At 53, Gipson is diabetic, asthmatic and nearly blind and lives on $779 per month, making it difficult for her to cover her food, medicine and electric bills. That's where the smart meter comes in: The in-home gadget shows how much electricity the Maywood resident is using in real time, information that could help her save money. And ComEd also sends her tips about how to save energy.
There's only one problem: Gipson, who was part of a smart grid pilot program, said she never learned how to use the smart meter, and that ComEd's tips weren't helpful.
"I couldn't really figure it out," she said of her smart meter. Tips included sealing her windows. "I rent,'' she said. "I can't seal this lady's windows.''
Consumer education will be a large part of the smart grid rollout plan filed Monday with state regulators, said Tom O'Neill, senior vice president of regulatory and energy policy and general counsel for ComEd.
In focus groups conducted last month, customers told ComEd that they knew little about the smart grid or smart meters and didn't envision spending much time to inform themselves, according to ComEd's filing with the Illinois Commerce Commission. The utility laid out an education plan in its filing that includes everything from conducting mobile classrooms to sponsoring iPad games and dispatching teams of young smart grid ambassadors into communities to engage and educate consumers.
A separate analysis that used ComEd's data from its pilot study said education will be especially important to the area's most vulnerable populations: the sick, the poor and the elderly, who otherwise won't receive the benefits they're paying for.
The analysis, aimed at determining the health impact smart meters would have on vulnerable residents, was written by the National Center for Medical Legal Partnership, the Citizens Utility Board and energy consultants Lynne Snyder and Barbara Alexander. It was paid for by the Health Impact Project, a collaboration between the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Initially, the technology is expected to add $3 per month to the average electricity bill, according to ComEd, but could save customers $2.6 billion over 20 years, double the cost of the technology, by making the utility's operations more efficient through automation.
Additional cost savings could be realized if consumers also altered their behavior to use less energy. However, the health assessment analysis found that elderly and low-income residents didn't change the way they behaved after they received the smart gadgets.
"Smart meters have a lot of potential because you're going to be able to learn a lot of information about your electricity usage," said Dr. Megan Sandel, an author of the Health Impact Assessment and interim executive director of the National Center for Medical Legal Partnership. "But there's nothing inherently smart about digital meters. What makes it smart is the education that goes along with it."
Smart technology also will make it easier for ComEd to cut off service to those who don't pay their bills, the assessment warned, which could have health implications for vulnerable people. Today, the utility sends out trucks to turn off service, a face-to-face contact that can prevent power from being switched off at the home of those who require electricity for life-saving medical devices. About 25 percent of low-income households use electrically powered medical devices, according to the study.
For people like Gipson, even a loss of air conditioning can affect health. "In the summer when it's humid, I can't go outside," she said. "I can't even go from the front door to the sidewalk without gasping."
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