I live in a city where basic smart metering will become the norm in a few months, in a country that is drowning in car but wants to produce more of them, just greener. That’s why two distinct pieces of news really caught my attention last week.

What are smart meters and electric cars?

“Smart meters” are electric meters that can monitor and report to your power utility, more or less in real time, how much power you are using, when and (if they know which kind of appliance is connected to each power outlet) even how. By using this information, the electric company could bill you more fairly, charging you more for power used in manners that cause extra stress to the grid (that is in certain hours, or over a certain treshold), and less in other cases.

Electric cars don’t emit any dangerous substance because they run on batteries that could, at least in theory, be entirely recharged with power from clean, renewable sources.

Smart meters and electric cars could do a lot to reduce the total energy requirements of industrialized societies and the pollution caused when using or generating that energy. But…

The inconvenient truth: too much energy is never cheap

One of the two news I read is that electric utilities are worried because of electric cars, at least in the short term. Because in the real world, in order to recharge the batteries of an electric car, you must either wait many hours or suck so much power from the grid, so quickly, to risk a home blackout, even if it’s all green power: “an electric car can draw as much power as a small house… The surge in demand could knock out power to a home, or even a neighborhood. Depending on local conditions, getting a home ready to charge an electric car may cost up to “a couple months and thousands of dollars”.

Just a few days before that story, I had read a quote in another one that, I think, sums up the whole, real issue. On November 13th, 2010, the New York Times ran a story titled “Smart” Meters Draw Complaints of Inaccuracy, about the many people in the USA who, after installing smart meters, started to pay more for electricity. For me, the real news and food for thought in that article is a statement from Sgt. John Robertson 2nd, Army mechanic in Fort Hood, Texas: “I’ve done two tours in Iraq, and when I come home I’m getting ripped off by my electric meter”.

Of course, I’ve never heard of Sgt Robertson before. Until I get evidence of the contrary, I give for granted that he is a a good soldier and a honest, great, competent person in good faith who always did his duty in the best way he could. I am not attacking Sgt Robertson here, nor I am writing this to judge or blame in any way him or the whole Iraq war business here.

Still, to me the real gist of these two stories, and their connection is that:

  1. there’s no rip-off here. His power bill simply told Sgt Robertson, and anticipated to the rest of us, the inconvenient truth: no, fighting for your country, or being a good citizen in any other way, is not sufficient to guarantee you abundant, cheap energy these days. We’re all come to a point where not even years of war can keep certain lifestyles affordable for average people. The price of electricity generated and used in the “traditional” way may go up by 20 to 40 percent in the coming decades

  2. at least in the short/medium term, any attempt to do “business 100% as usual, just smarter and greener” (because this is what electric cars are all about) is not going to work on a massive scale, that is for average people, without substantial lifestyle adjustments (as in “whatever you drive, drive much less than you did last year”).

Many smart meter users (including me in a few months!) will get much higher bills if they don’t quickly realize these inconvenient truths because, as Grist mentioned, “an independent review found that old previous meters were undercharging users. The smart meters merely corrected the error.” And what do you think smart meters will do to a family that buys a zero-emission electric car… expecting to use it as much as they did 10 or 20 years ago?