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Understanding consumer fears about smart grid

There's an odd psychological dichotomy at play with intelligent power infrastructure that confuses power industry insiders: Why do consumers who regularly use more personal technology (such as smartphones) without a second thought become preoccupied with what the power company will know about them when smarter meters and thermostats come more directly into play? Why do these people seem perfectly OK with their phones tracking who they call, where they are and what they text but not simple load management numbers about their electric consumption?

I posed a few of these questions to Dr. Larry D. Rosen, a professor, speaker and research consultant with California State University in Dominguez Hills. Dr. Rosen works with the George Marsh Applied Cognition Laboratory, which researches a spectrum of psychological sub-disciplines including cognitive, clinical, experimental and social. The lab maintains a distinct focus on modern technology and its impact on the human mind.

Posed the dichotomy question, Dr. Rosen pointed to the human factor as the major difference.

"From all of my research, we have seen that people are mostly using technology for communication and social interaction. Their phones are a major source of connection for them, and connection is a basic human need," he said.

Indeed, according to Rosen, the major difference in fear between smartphones and smart meters may be tied to our deepest subconscious; the phone is all about connecting. And, for that connection, that human contact, we're willing to sacrifice privacy-something that may not be said for smart meters.

"As a species, we are willing to give up quite a bit of ourselves and our privacy for a feeling of being connected," he added.

Smartphones make people feel connected and feed that need. Other smart technologies do not: smart meters, QR codes, augmented reality, for example.

"[Non-social] smart technologies are fantastic, but, as we have seen, they are not the items that this generation is willing to embrace. It has been interesting to watch how myriad technologies, such as QR codes, are not being embraced. And, that's all because these technologies do not have a communication and connection component," he added.

And, while utilities may argue that smart meters and interactive consumer widgets have a big communication component to them, the counter argument would be that this is all about choices in communication-namely, does your consumer really want to talk to you?

"In this era of connective technologies, people are leery of how any other technology is going to be used," he said, noting that, while individuals are happy to let people they trust (namely, friends) track them by posting on Facebook, those people don't consider utilities and companies their friends. Utilities are not their "chosen virtual connections," as Rosen labeled the difference.

Can utilities learn from smartphones in this arena? Is there a lesson in how to package communication to make smart meters and more intelligent utility technology more palatable to the customer?

Well, yes, but Rosen warns it will be an uphill battle. Without that chosen virtual connection, utilities face being lumped in with the negatives of updated technology: privacy issues from credit card companies and big ticket news items like hacking being in the forefront of the consumer's brain. But, Rosen suggests taking that human connection into account and working it.

"[Getting acceptance] is going to be difficult unless there is some connection with friends, real or virtual," he suggested.

Rosen's advice to gain growing consumer acceptance of smart utility technology is simple. First, remember that fear can be overcome with gain. So, think money (as utilities like Reliant are doing with their push for "free nights and weekends"). Look to cell phone companies for examples of this step. Second, connect to the friendship network of the consumer's choosing to make it more acceptable. Tie into that basic human need to interact, and, finally, have a little patience.

Don't take the fact that a consumer loves his more-intrusive cell phone and hates his less-intrusive smart meter personally. It's not a choice; it's a natural response from the very basic depths of the human psyche. To paraphrase the old dating break-up line: It's really not you. It's him.


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