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Guest Editorial: Smart meters are first step in bigger process

Change comes easiest when people understand how they benefit. Motivation is almost in direct proportion to how much they save, or profit, or are made to feel better. Central to all this is the ability to communicate effectively.
That ability, or willingness, will dictate the degree of success Vermont will have with the “smart grid” technology that is about to become part of our lives. We can do the minimum, and accomplish little, or we can use the technology as the necessary catalyst to prompt the sorts of changes that truly make a difference.
The “smart grid” is basically a network of electronic meters installed at each of our homes and businesses. It allows us to view, in real time, how much energy we consume; the obvious nexus being cost associated with use. The thought is that if we have all the lights turned on and we see what it’s costing, that we’ll turn the lights off — or, at least, some of them. If we see that it costs more to heat our buildings during peak usage, then we might decide to buy energy storage devices and heat our homes and businesses at night, when the costs are less.
As a state, Vermont is the perfect laboratory for such change. We’re small and we have the environmental mindset that makes such efforts plausible. That’s the reason a two-day conference was held at the University of Vermont, sponsored by UVM and the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico. We have the potential to lead others toward smarter energy consumption options. The “smart grid” is just one of the tools, albeit a vital one.
This is not a reality to which we are just awakening. We are in this position because we came together as a state — utilities, regulators and our political leaders (Sen. Bernie Sanders was instrumental) — to put together a proposal that would allow us to act as a single unit. The carrot was a $3.4 billion investment the Obama administration was willing to make in smart grid technology across the country. It was a competitive bid process and Vermont was the only applicant to receive the appropriation as a state — a total of  $69 million announced in October 2009.
Almost two years later we are talking about the next step. Central Vermont Public Service says it will have smart meters installed at all its 160,000 customers by the end of 2012. Green Mountain Power and Vermont Electric Cooperative intend to do the same. The UVM conference builds upon the hope that the system will help encourage the use of renewable energy, which is an obvious plus.
But there is much more to the story. The smart grid’s potential should not be limited to renewables; it should open the conversation to electricity as the preferred source of power. If we can monitor our use, and if we can reconfigure our needs to reflect greater efficiencies, then we have the ability to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels. Particularly the oil we must import.
According to CVPS officials, the utility has the capacity to power 50,000 electric cars on its existing system. That’s 10 percent of all registered automobile users in Vermont. And think of the number of Vermonters that might benefit through a switch to electricity to heat their homes, if and when those fuel sources are comparable in cost.
But to accomplish this, we must have leaders who exhibit the necessary political will to talk about using more of something — electricity — not less. And that involves an investment in energy transmission. It also begs the need for an honest discussion about the role of renewables and what percentage of our baseload needs they can reasonably be expected to contribute. In truth, we will need as many difference sources of power as we can assemble.
Ultimately, however, the “power” of such ideas lies in the ability and willingness of leaders to engage the public in a bottom-up discussion, not a top-down mandate. If the meters are installed and no thought is given to how best to engage the public on a continual basis, then it falls dramatically short of its potential.
This is where we continually fall short, which also explains the rampant cynicism toward any public initiative. It is one reason we stop trying. We have developed a dependency mentality fed by leaders who essentially say, ‘trust us, just sit back and we will take care of things for you.’
It hasn’t worked, and it never will.
The smart grid does have enormous potential. But the real work is two-fold: Our leaders need to accept a wide-open vision of electricity and its vast potential; and we need to figure out how to shift societal responsibilities from our leaders to the people. It’s only when we, as individuals, begin to do some of the lifting that anything moves.
Emerson Lynn, St. Albans Messenger

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