Whose fault is it that the first generation of U.S. smart meters hasn’t lived up to its potential? And how can the next generation avoid repeating the same mistakes?

“The track record on AMI is a mixed bag,” Alicia Barton, CEO of FirstLight Power and former CEO of the New York State Energy Research and Development Agency, said in an interview. “I think there are a lot of places in the cleantech space where we’ve lived that experience — a lot of hype, and then the realization that it hasn’t quite lived up to the expectations.” 

It’s a bit too easy to blame this state of affairs entirely on utilities, however. To be sure, some have overpromised smart meter capabilities that happen to lie outside their primary business case of automated billing and other “cash register” functions. But regulators that approve or deny AMI business cases — and the regulatory structures that organize that activity — also have a role to play. 

A 2020 report from the U.S. Department of Energy highlighted the challenges facing utility regulators in assessing the costs and benefits of AMI investments with “identifiable costs, but uncertain future benefits.” These proceedings are complicated by the fact that they envision large-scale changes to the traditional role of the utility, which is framed as evolving from a supplier of electricity to an orchestrator of customer-owned distributed energy resources. 

That’s why Barton is excited about new regulatory approaches to consider the potential benefits of next-generation smart meters, or “AMI 2.0” in industry parlance.