Smart (and Stupid) Metering

The IntersectionBy Chris MooneyAug 11, 2010 11:11 PM


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So I've recently moved to Washington, D.C., and into a newish building. And I've been getting a utility bill with a rather large number being charged (on the order of $ 75 per month) for something called "HVAC," or, heating, ventilation and air conditioning. My inquiries into what this charge is for, and whether I can do anything to avoid it, speak volumes about the inefficiencies of our current energy system. Turns out HVAC is calculated in the following way. There's a total HVAC value for the building, and then an algorithm is used to apportion a supposedly fair fraction of the bill to each resident. The algorithm centrally takes into account 1) square footage of your apartment unit; 2) number of occupants. All of this is carried out by a sub-metering company, which then sends you the bill. Let me acknowledge at the outset that I have no idea why things are set up this way--whether it is the choice of my building, or of some utility, or some other possibility. So I'm not laying blame. But I am interpreting the consequences of the arrangement--because as far as I can tell, the consequences are that there is absolutely no incentive for anybody in the building to save energy. In fact, the incentive is probably the opposite--to blast cold air all the time. After all, you're not really paying for it--your neighbors are. In my case, I have a unit that gets no direct sunlight, so that even in this hot DC summer, the temperature remains about 75 degrees on average. Mostly, that's fine with me, and I rarely use A/C. Furthermore, I travel a lot, and I turn everything off before I leave. So there will be a week or more at a time when there is no air conditioning at all being used in the apartment. Up until now, then, I've been acting as a conscientious energy saver--a perfect little tree hugger. Up until now, I knew nothing about this HVAC business, or that my greenish behavior would have little to no effect on a key component of my energy bill. But now that I do know, the question becomes, why be green? Heck, I'm tempted to start cranking the A/C. Everybody else in the building is, apparently. I'm no economist, but doesn't this sound a bit like the tragedy of the commons scenario? In fairness, I probably get a little bit of cooling from the A/C use of the other apartments, even if my A/C remains turned off. That's probably worth taking into account. And maybe I'll want more HVAC in the winter than I do in the summer, due to my lack of sunlight (though I doubt it). Still, I don't think these considerations outweigh the fundamental inefficiency and perverse incentives of this situation. Now multiply my experience by the number of people living in buildings employing a similar sub-metering scenario (I have no idea how many there are, but somebody out there does). My guess is that you will end up with a very large inefficiency and dysfunctionality in our energy economy--a lot of waste, and a lot of discouragement of energy conserving behavior. Smart metering, anyone?

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