A few weeks ago, I wrote about Wattbot, a new online tool that does a custom calculation to determine which home improvements will give you the biggest bang for your buck in terms of energy savings. This week, Wattbot launched its public beta for users in San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles, and New York. If you live in one of these areas, go ahead and give it a try. (And even if you don't, you can pretend you do while giving it a test run. I won't tell!)
If you're like me, you'll fly through the first set of questions (knowing full-well how many people live in your home), squeeze in a quick debate with your boyfriend over the exact vintage of your house (tip: you're right; he's wrong), then stretch your neck out the window to try to get a peek at the roof (are those slate or composite shingles up there?)
Until, that is, the tool instructs you to enter your monthly electricity use for the last year. (What? You say you just write a check and then toss the bill in the recycling bin each month? You don't keep track of your consumption?! ... Me too.)
For most of us, getting our electric bill at the end of the month is like getting a report card for a course that we didn't know we were taking. And what makes it worse is that there's no telling what a good grade is or even how well we're doing in comparison to our peers. So we make a vague resolution to "use less" – just like we resolve to "exercise more" – and then we promptly forget about it. Until the next bill comes.
That all may be changing soon, though. As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, President Obama pledged to fund the installation of 40 million smart meters, adding significantly to the 58 million that were already being planned for roll-out by utility companies across the nation.
A smart meter is a powerful device that monitors your electricity use (and sometimes your gas or water) and actively sends the information to your utility company so that they can better match power generation to demand. The improved information access should mean less overproduction of electricity (which cannot efficiently be stored) and, thus, less waste of natural resources and money, less environmental impact, and possibly cheaper rates. With proper planning on the part of the utility company and the ability for them to remotely power down users' appliances in a pinch, smart meters also mean less chance of blackouts.
When paired with an in-home or online dashboard, like Google PowerMeter, the improved information access means that users can finally monitor their own electricity usage in real-time and see how they compare to others. Advanced features allow users to control their major home appliances remotely (to promote energy conservation) and to schedule them to power up during off-peak hours (when electricity rates are cheaper).
Smart-metering is a hot-button issue right now due to public concerns over privacy, security, and policy. Nonetheless, the technology is quickly becoming commonplace. And once the regulations catch up with the science, knowing how much energy we use, setting goals for reducing it, and working towards those goals will all be easy-peasy.