Tuesday, August 5, 2008

The future of smart meters for dummies

A recent New York Times story detailed how two English villages have cut their energy consumption by half in five years since the installation of “smart meters” that let homeowners know when energy usage is redlining.

When Jeffrey Marchant and his wife, Brenda, power up their computer, turn on a light or put the kettle on to boil, they can just about watch their electric bill rise. Turn on a computer and the device — a type of so-called smart meter — goes from 300 watts to 400 watts. Turn off a light and it goes from 299 to 215. At 500, the meter is set to sound an alarm.

“I’ve become like one of Pavlov’s dogs,” Mrs. Marchant said. “Every time it bleeps I think I’m going to take one of those pans off the stove. I’d do anything to make it stop. It helps you change your habits.”

Normally, my in-home strategies for conserving energy are confined to pretending to be asleep when my wife asks me to get up and feed the cat, but I’m already looking into getting my own smart meter to torture my family every time someone snaps on a hairdryer or a blender.

I’ll get a whistle, a nightstick, an energy police badge and storm into the kitchen whenever the slightest burp in usage sends the smart meter higher than, say, 50.

“What the hell’s going on in here?” I’ll demand. “The smart meter’s ringing like there’s a prison break.”

“Why, I just wanted to make some toast to feed the baby.”

“You’re wasting electricity! Use a candle!”

“But I’m already using a candle because you’ve removed all the light bulbs.”

“Not to see! Use the candle to make toast! Just hold the bread over the flame. And use it for the soup, too. Heat it as ya eat it, one spoonful at a time.”

But more than that callous fun, I’m romantic about what these meters will mean to the future. I envision a day when meters will inform every aspect of our lives.

Computers of the future may be able to determine down to the mile just how long a vehicle will last. Instead of odometers starting at zero, they’ll start at 250,000 and count down. After a year or so you might dip to 225,000, but you could actually add life miles if you get an oil change or new tires. Truly safe drivers may be able to maintain their life miles at virtually static numbers.

People everywhere will be much more conscious of waste. Meters attached to TVs will show how you’re draining the life of your big screen by leaving it on when you’re not in the room. Refrigerators will tick, tick, tick away their potency as you stand their dawdling over whether to snack on the turkey or the leftover Chinese.

The greatest benefit will, of course, be when each of us gets our very own smart meter. Smoke a cigarette and your life meter will inform you you’ve just scissored 15 minutes off your longevity. Go on a long bender with your buddies and you’d better hope it was damn well worth it. Your life meter will show all that wanton revelry just cost you four days. Eat a spinach salad and you’re just earned another day with the grandkids.

It’ll make every day seem as precious as those given to terminal patients who've just been told they have just six months to live. They draw up their bucket lists and squeeze more zestful fun into two months than they’d done in the previous decades.

Of course, the real breakthrough will be when they develop meters that will be able to determine if we're bound for heaven or hell. Help an old lady across the street and your meter swings toward the heaven. Mistreat your mom and, gadzooks, your meter will tell you may have made an eternally fatal mistake.

We just have to hope the meters won’t make any miscalculations that’ll fool some of us into thinking we’re coasting to heaven when, in fact, we’re bound for a cruise on the lake of fire.

End up there and you're toast.

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