The late Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill once posited that "all politics is local." The same might be said for smart grid.

I was reminded of this dynamic yesterday when Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu gave an update on how American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds are driving innovation.

The use of directed federal funds—particularly matching funds for local projects—to spur innovation is, in my view, a laudable idea for moving the nation forward on a clean energy agenda. This is the thrust of modern, global competition and we need federal action if we want to win.

But Kate Rowland's column yesterday noted that a line item of under a half-million dollars for consumer outreach, education and ongoing communication is under intense scrutiny in a $22 million project (half funded by ARRA) in Naperville, Ill., to install, among other things, 57,000 smart meters. That's just 2 percent of the project cost—less than $10 per household—devoted to ensuring that taxpayers not only "get it" but realize benefits, too.

At stake is one effort in the nation's forward progress on clean energy. What's required is something new—participation, at some level, by the homeowner.

The people of Naperville, as elsewhere, apparently don't understand the chain of events that lead to the oh-so-easy flicking of a light switch, particularly the difference between the cost of peak and non-peak electricity production.

Let's switch locales. The cost of neglecting consumer education is being played out in Marin County, north across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, where I happened to have spent the weekend with friends. Last week, we wrote about Fairfax, Calif.'s recent decision to ban further smart meter installations, even arrest installers.

So I was all eyes and ears during my purely social visit, just to remind myself of the nature of the locale. As we wrote last week, the ostensible objection to Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) smart meters by Marin's modest towns is the meters' electromagnetic radiation. Not the meters' potential inaccuracies. Not the possible jump in cost. Not the potential intrusion on privacy.

This is a new twist on the pushback to smart meters by some communities around the country. To be sure, far more meters have gone in without objection than those that have raised hackles. We'll detail Austin, Texas' success story in a Sept. 9 webinar.

Pushback has arisen for various reasons, but the common denominator appears to be short shrift given to basic education for homeowners on meters' role in an efficient grid and how homeowners might benefit. A considered process for handling complaints also seems to be missing.

Of course, the "health effects" of smart meters might be a proxy for something else, such as, say, intense hatred for PG&E by Marin residents. After all, people in Marin use cell phones, Bluetooth headsets and Wi-Fi, as elsewhere. Cell towers and electric transmission lines are present. Radio stations blast away. Electromagnetic radiation at some level is common.

Also, residents are invested in ecologically conscious living, promoting renewable energy, limiting greenhouse gases, recycling every waste stream. Priuses have replaced the formerly requisite Subarus. These appear to be affluent, educated, motivated people with a keen sense of community.

Turns out, upon closer examination, that PG&E clumsily attempted to counter "Marin Clean Energy"—a local, clean energy alternative—with an expensive ballot proposition that would have changed the statewide requirements for forming similar entities to a two-thirds vote by a community. Whether that fully explains Marin's health-based pushback, I still don't know. But it reveals mistrust, exacerbated.

Note that the Marin pushback is utterly different from protestations in Bakersfield and Fresno, where smart meter accuracy and bills have been questioned. The California Public Utilities Commission has ordered meter testing to settle that debate. (Similar testing in Texas has confirmed meter accuracy.)

So, today's utilities often carry a legacy of mistrust derived from being the only game in town accustomed to dictating interactions with "ratepayers." To my mind, that calls for a generation-long transition plan in partnership with customers. Ignoring this obviously has its costs. Doing it on the cheap may also be ill-advised. (Hello, Naperville.)

We're in terra incognita here. Fumbling smart meter rollouts may delay local projects, if we're fortunate. But if a rash of these failures undermines more efficient grids for a generation, then our nation takes a blow we can ill afford.

I suggest that another idea accepted in politics also applies to the smart grid: vigorously define yourself or your opponents will do it for you.

Phil Carson
Intelligent Utility Daily