Things That Go Thump In The Night

It’s funny what you end up talking about at Hallowe’en parties. A friend dressed as Sasquatch sidled over to me, drink in hand, and let out a pathetic sigh – his shoulders slouched. He looked beat; I wasn’t sure if he was playing the part of the dejected man beast, or if he was truly exhausted. It was the latter. Apparently, he’d been losing a lot of sleep because of a late-night rhythmic banging he’d hear through his condo walls at all hours of night. I wasn’t sure where this was going.

My friend’s bedroom backs onto his neighbor’s laundry room. She has three kids and does her wash after midnight “to save money.” She must be tired as well because the load is always unbalanced. Hence the thump, thump, thump, thump.

Sasquatch thought he would share his tale of woe because he wanted me to know that he thought Smart Meters and time-of-use billing were really dumb. They were making him miserable and his life hairy.

Utilities across North America are struggling with how to implement “smart grids” that make continuous digital communication possible between companies and customers in real time. As demand increases at “peak” times, smart grids can be used as a gateway to demand response devices and allow for the remote control of high-usage appliances and air conditioners. Being able to control energy use like this makes brownouts and shortages less likely when demand is highest, and even enables bringing more intermittent renewable resources on the grid by managing our regional demand profile to better match those renewable resources.  So this allows for a more affordable and environmentally responsible generation mix. Coal = bad.

More immediately, a smart meter allows utilities to charge more for electricity at peak demand periods when it is most costly to generate. By promoting the fact that electricity costs more during peak hours (roughly defined as mornings and from 3-7 p.m.), the theory is that these price signals will change behavior. People will do their laundry at other times.

The barrier, once again, is inconsistent marketing. Price signals work but they may not work across all communities. So when it comes to time-of-use billing, making the facts better understood doesn’t necessarily help and can even be counterproductive.

In most jurisdictions in Canada, the price difference per kWh between peak and off-peak is not really that much. If the lady in apartment 12 who is up till 2 a.m. rebalancing her laundry load knew this, she might not change her behavior at all. It’s a challenge that energy feedback devices commonly generate. Sometimes when people know the facts of how much energy they are actually using, they are quite happy to maintain the status quo energy behavior, or even use more.

My friend said he’d give his right arm for a good night’s sleep. So I told him to knock on the neighbor lady’s door and give her 15 cents – because that’s probably all she is saving per wash by doing her laundry so late. So maybe that’s not the smartest advice. But the fact is that until the price difference between peak and off-peak really is as scary as people think, and until there’s a community-based approach to explaining why time-of-use billing is important (it really is!), it will be difficult to build informed support for the smart grid.

Twitter: @stuarthickox

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1 comment about "Things That Go Thump In The Night".
  1. Jim Dugan from PipPops LLC , November 2, 2011 at 12:55 p.m.
    This is only one link to a myriad of articles on the "smart meter" controversy: http://www.sandiegoreader.com/news/2011/apr/27/citylights2-smart-meter/ Could it possibly come down to the electric companies making more money at a cost to our health and a further cost to our out-of-control health care costs?