The United States is becoming increasingly urbanized. As more people move into America’s urban centers, municipal governments will continuously grapple with how to efficiently deliver services that protect its citizens while providing the infrastructure for an improved quality of life. Spearheading these efforts must be the deployment of an advanced electrical grid within which innovative services can be integrated. But as cities deploy smarter energy and communications infrastructure, local governments have to ensure that all residents, especially low-income residents, are connected.
Inclusiveness is more than a buzzword or marketing phrase for cities trying to sell their city as progressive. For example, inclusiveness is about optimizing our democracy. What do I mean by that. As a backbone system for a municipality, one of the primary uses of a smart grid is for local government to better communicate with its citizens. A smart grid’s capacity to communicate is a reminder that a modernized and digitized grid represents the intersection between energy technology and information technology. Democracy requires that two-way communication about energy demand, distribution, and management has to include all ratepayers. Their needs and voices cannot be ignored if a local government is to be described as democratically valid.
Inclusiveness plays an important role in a city’s data management. The popularity of a smart grid stems from its potential for reducing the costs of delivering city services, including public safety and transportation. The more low-income citizens that are incorporated into the grid, the more data that can be collected by local governments, data that can be used to design initiatives that enhance a city’s quality of life.
Not only would local government benefit, but utilities’ data management efforts would benefit. The more data utilities can collect on the consumption behavior of low-income ratepayers, the more innovative programs and services utilities can design for these consumers. Improved data collection is especially important as more residential consumers use renewable energy to generate their own electricity. As certain grid costs become more difficult to recover from a smaller ratepayer base, utilities will be able to collect and share data on how the integration of distributed energy generation is impacting low-income ratepayer behavior.
Finally, inclusiveness means increasing the pool of ratepayer access to equity in service quality and lifestyle. The technological capacity of a smart grid empowers a utility to provide all consumers with “lifestyle rates.” A smart grid’s broadband capability combined with proper tariffing or regulatory framework allows for consumers, whether affluent or low-income, to choose a rate structure that best fits budget and consumption needs. The American consumer prides herself on the ability to choose and low-income consumers should not be deprived of this greatest of American values.
We need to pay attention to the lessons we learned from the deployment of broadband technology over the past two decades. Were it not for mobile broadband deployment, the digital divide between low income and more affluent consumers would have been wider. We can avoid that social policy blunder by requiring consumer advocates, the utilities and broadband industries, and state and federal regulators work together to ensure that all consumers reap the benefits of a smart grid.