Sometimes I wonder: What makes many people so comfortable with using smartphones but so concerned with the health dangers and privacy details of smart meters? Rationally speaking, it seems to me that using a smartphone involves at least as much of a health and privacy risk as having a smart meter installed on the side of your house; the phone can track where you are, who you text, when you make a call, what websites you visit, and more—all while bombarding your head with powerful cellular radio waves. Yet many people who are willing to overlook these concerns with a phone become simultaneously obsessed with fears over smart meters.
I find this logical contradiction fascinating. Clearly, consumer fears about smart meters are not rational, which means that a response relying on facts to address these fears will almost certainly be ineffective. One great example of a logical response that appears unlikely to resolve these consumer fears is the recent 80-page Public Utility Commission of Texas report (PDF) on how “scientific research reveals no definite or proven biological effects from exposure to low-level RF [radio-frequency] signals.” Does anyone actually think that a consumer who calls utility customer support on his iPhone to complain about the health hazards of his new smart meter is going to read this entire report and subsequently realize the irrationality of his own behavior?
A recent article on Intelligent Utility describes the irrationality of consumer fears about smart grid. According to the article, the main reason that people are willing to overlook health and privacy concerns with smartphones is that these devices are primarily social tools, and humans highly value social interaction. Professor Larry D. Rosen explains, “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.”
The article explains that, 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.”
Rosen said, “As a species, we are willing to give up quite a bit of ourselves and our privacy for a feeling of being connected.”
Short of offering a free smartphone with every new meter, how can utilities effectively respond to consumer concerns about smart meters? First, Rosen explained, “Fear can be overcome with gain.” That is, using smart meters to offer customers tangible rewards such as rebates, increased reliability, and greater control over energy use could help to convince many people that the benefits of smart meters clearly outweigh any potential risks.
In addition, Rosen advises utilities to “connect to the friendship network of the consumer’s choosing to make it more acceptable.” Far from simply trying to get customers to become fans of the company’s Facebook page, utilities should think of this strategy as leveraging the data from smart meters to make energy use a social experience in which customers can interact with their existing social connections. For example, social applications allowing customers to compare energy use to their peers and compete to win prizes could make viewing smart meter data a much more enjoyable experience. (Check out our recent blog post Fun and Games with Facebook! for more on this topic.)
Finally, remember that your customers aren’t deliberately raising concerns about smart meters to make your job more difficult. The Intelligent Utility article counsels, “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.” Rather than becoming frustrated over this irrational behavior and trying to win the argument with facts and logic, utilities can respond to customer concerns in a way that effectively overcomes their fears by transforming smart meter data into tangible benefits and a social experience.
How has your utility worked to effectively overcome consumer concerns surrounding smart meters?