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Juicing down for global warming

More electric utilities need to install 'smart' meters that show real-time costs and reduce power demand.

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Many power utilities are gearing up to install "smart" meters in kitchens or living rooms to show customers the cost of their electricity use – per minute and perhaps per appliance. During times of peak usage, utilities may even remotely adjust your home thermostat.

Having an instant electric bill on the wall, with dollar signs rolling like a gasoline pump, is designed to create sticker shock – and then, perhaps, a conservation ethic to help curb climate change. People might cut back their use of power-hungry devices, from clothes dryers to the TV "sleep mode." They might, for instance, turn on dishwashers only after 10 p.m.

Some utilities hope to install "intelligent sockets" that communicate between appliances and the electricity provider. On hot summer days, when electric rates would be raised through "dynamic pricing," those customers who voluntarily give up control of their usage – and it would have be voluntary – would be given rebates.

But can such watt-saving steps help save the planet? Yes, if they keep utilities from building more carbon-spewing power plants – especially the expensive kind that rev up only during peak hours. By many estimates, fossil-fuel power plants are likely to be the preferred source of electricity for years to come.

As it is, utilities can't keep up with rising demand. One projection shows a 19 percent rise in peak-time electricity usage over the next decade while only a 6 percent growth in power capacity.

Something's got to give. And it may be consumer lifestyles.

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