Federal Communications Commission

My Electric Bill

August 27th, 2009 by Nick Sinai - Energy and Environment Director

As a new member of the National Broadband Taskforce, I recently moved from Boston to Washington D.C.  I just received my first electric bill in the mail, and it was painfully high -- now I understand why folks try to flee Washington D.C. in August.


Three things struck me about the bill, beyond my own foolishness and irresponsibility.


First, the bill was challenging to understand, even for someone who knows a little bit about electricity.  Within the categories of generation and distribution, there were various services I was being billed for, all at different rates per kilowatt hour.  Then there were several monthly charges that were independent of usage.  I needed a spreadsheet to calculate my total electricity cost per kilowatt hour.


Second, the bill came too late.  It's not that the local electric utility was delinquent; I'm sure they got me my bill on time.  I mean it was too late for me to do anything about it, other than to be more efficient-can you say CFLs and better insulation?-going forward.  It's like I bought a tank of gas a month ago, and am only now getting the bill.


Third, my bill didn't give me any good ideas about how to change my consumption in the future. Sure, I know that laying off the AC will use less energy, but how much of a difference will a few degrees make? What about the other things in my house, like light bulbs or appliances?


At the same time, I was getting several emails from my bank and from Mint, a free consumer financial website I use.  Mint sends me alerts when I have a low balance, an unpaid bill looming, or if I am spending above my budget-which is unfortunately too often an occurrence. It also clearly shows me what I am spending money on, giving me the information I need to take control of my budget.


Imagine if we had the same level of information about our energy consumption, and if we had a better sense of what it costs us.  Real-time information about prices and usage is important-studies have shown that just providing information about energy consumption in real-time can change behavior enough to generate a 10% savings on your electricity bill. The Smart Grid holds the promise to make this a reality.


We had a great panel discussion yesterday on the Smart Grid, and it's clear to me that there are many different approaches to building the communications networks that are an essential part of the Smart Grid.  There are many different applications-Smart Meters being just one-that have different bandwidth and latency requirements, and there is no silver bullet.  Commercial wireless networks will play a role, but there are also private licensed and unlicensed approaches that have their place too.


But as I heard the debate about what types of networks and technologies we should use, it occurred to me that the nation will collectively miss the benefit of the Smart Grid if we can't get information to the consumers so they can act on it.


My former boss, Bob Metcalfe, who knows a little bit about networking, likes to remind folks that we need to learn the lessons of the Internet as we think about building out the Smart Grid.


Those lessons can be the success stories, like the power of standards.  Standard protocols, like IP, have been fundamental to the rise of the Internet, and have revolutionized telecommunications.  On yesterday's panel, we heard consensus on the importance of standards, and that the National Institute of Standards and Technologies (NIST) is leading the charge on Smart Grid standards.


But sometimes the best lessons come from failure.  The Internet architecture, mostly designed by academics to communicate with other academics, didn't really account for security or commercial uses.  As a result, viruses, spam and cybersecurity are major issues today affecting many aspects of our economy.  Given that we are just starting with the Smart Grid, security doesn't have to be an afterthought.


So how can we build a Smart Grid that is based on open standards, to ensure a faster and more efficient deployment to all Americans?  How can we ensure communication systems are built with sufficient security, resiliency, and privacy?  And how can the National Broadband Plan help?


As Commissoner Clyburn noted yesterday, building the Smart Grid is a challenging task that will require strong coordination between the private sector, federal agencies, and state regulators.


With the help of the American entrepreneurial spirit, I'm optimistic that we can get there. And I'm confident that one day I'll get an email or text message warning me of an impending hot day, reminding me to set the thermostat just a few degrees higher, or giving me an opportunity to save money through new pricing models. Or maybe my thermostat will be programmed, like my TiVo, to know my preferences, and will take care of it for me, saving money on my behalf.


Either way, I know how I'll solve the problem next August - I'll follow the lead of the politicians and take a vacation.

3 Responses to “My Electric Bill”

  1. jammy says:

    I am going to be moving into an apartment for college in about a year, but I have a tight budget; I know that a lot of apartments include water, sewage, and garbage, but that still leaves electric. I am going to a specialized school so campus housing is not an option. So I was wondering how much approximately does an electric bill cost per month for a one or two bedroom apartment? Thank you!
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  2. Glen Salmon says:

    I would be interested in the study or the data behind the statement, "studies have shown that just providing information about energy consumption in real-time can change behavior enough to generate a 10% savings on your electricity bill". I recently blogged about a conversation with the director of our local electric provider (a coop in this part of Virginia) and he had direct data from my home's smart meter. I asked if/when I, as a consumer, would have access to the same real-time data he was looking at. The good news is they are trying to add this ability!

  3. Tim Reynolds says:

    I appreciate the work you are doing to facilitate the smart grid. I also want to thank the people responsible for maintaining and keeping the site alive.

    Does anyone know where one may donate money to <a href=""></a> to help pay the bills or is it government funded?

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