Ontario’s rollout of smart meters is the right move, despite a small portion needing to be replaced and their unpopularity with the Canadian Taxpayers Federation. Utilities are changing around the world, driving new economic opportunities, and smart meters are the linchpin. Ontario still has chance to take the lead in a new energy market where data is king.
Smart meters are not just about getting rid of guys with flashlights and clipboards walking door-to-door to help us figure out our energy use. They’re about unlocking a new ecosystem of entrepreneurs and technology that can use those meters in ways that engage consumers, reduce operating costs, lower costs of conservation programs and ultimately, drive savings for rate payers. Airbnb is changing how we travel. Smart meters will change the way we use energy — for the better.
The Ontario government introduced time-of-use electricity pricing because it matters. It costs more to produce and transmit power during peak periods than in the middle of the night when it’s just us and our cats watching the Late, Late Show. Gas-fired generating stations that operate for only a few days a year combined with transmission line losses that soar when power lines are hot and overloaded add up to a “peaking” system with high costs and high waste. Getting the right price signals to the consumer is just the first step.
Watching a movie at home today is more about Netflix than the TV Guide. Smart energy use is less about remembering to turn the dishwasher on at 9 p.m. than it is the dishwasher doing it by itself, or checking your iPhone on your way to work to make sure the air conditioner is off, or comparing your home’s energy use to your neighbours’, or privately sharing your energy data so a third party can make specific recommendations based on your lifestyle to help you save energy on your terms.
It won’t happen overnight, and we can’t measure the success of a program only partway through. Like lots of projects, most of the value happens in the home stretch. But when we can manage our energy from our mobile phones, when “smart” appliances are the norm, and when our bills are lower as a result, the value for consumers will be obvious. Maybe your hot water heater will take a short break when power prices peak, or your freezer does its deepest dive at night when power prices are low. These smart devices will save you money and take a load off our over-stretched electricity system. They’re just part of the much anticipated “internet of things.”
Beyond savings, there are next-generation jobs in an emerging sector driven by exports. But to actually capture benefits we need to be there for the long-term gains and think well beyond the hardware in the home. It involves strategic thinking on the software side and how information is transferred between devices and customers. Here in Ontario we’re influencing that global conversation with the rollout of the Green Button program, a secure way to get your energy use information electronically (now under pilot in Ontario.) That opens the market for local entrepreneurs to look beyond our borders, since we’re learning to securely share data on an emerging industry standard shared by our neighbours to the south.
Being honest with consumers about the true costs of energy is new, but it’s good for us, our grid and our energy bills. And that’s what smart meters do — they tell us it costs more to run the dishwasher right after dinner than if we wait a couple of hours. And when entrepreneurs couple those meters to other consumer devices lots of exciting possibilities emerge.
Fortunately, most Ontarians accept the logic of peak pricing and are ready to react to even relatively modest price differentials, a fact confirmed in a recent report by Ontario’s environment commissioner. Recent polling by the Climate Action Network found that more than 80 per cent of Ontarians were ready to shift power consumption to off-peak periods. When that attitude meets better information, you can be sure of two things: consumer behaviour will drive a more efficient electricity grid, and energy literacy will rise.
There is an old saying that what doesn’t get measured gets wasted. We are starting to measure and that is a good thing.
- Tim Gray is Executive Director of Environmental Defence and is a member of the Stakeholder Advisory Committee of the Ontario Power Authority