Energy & Environment

Smart meter monitoring can help conserve water — but not without a fight, researchers find

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The use of smart meters to enforce water restrictions could encourage widespread conservation — but not without local backlash, a new study has found. 

Amid California’s ongoing drought, researchers partnered with the city of Fresno in summer 2018 to access and identify water violations via household meter data. 

While a resulting surge in fines brought a dramatic reduction in both water use and violations, a barrage of complaints thwarted the program’s survival, according to the study, released on Wednesday by the University of Chicago’s Energy & Environment Lab. 

“The urgency of the water challenge in the West requires such highly efficient tools,” co-author Michael Greenstone, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, said in a statement

Yet policymakers “will need to carefully balance improved monitoring with community expectations and enforcement efforts,” Greenstone acknowledged. 

From July-September 2018, Greenstone and his colleagues piloted the automated enforcement of outdoor water restrictions for nearly 100,000 households in Fresno, where a total of 114,508 homes had meters installed at the time. 

Even though the city’s utility was a national pioneer in universal smart meter adoption, enforcement largely remained in the hands of “water cops” — workers who look for lawns that are being watered at prohibited hours. 

During the three-month pilot program, however, the share of households fined for non-compliance increased from 0.1 percent to 14 percent, according to the study.  

The ensuing shifts were drastic: a 17-percent decrease in total infractions and an 8-percent reduction in the number of households violating restrictions each month, the researchers found. 

The authors also observed a 3-percent decline in water consumption over the three-month initiative, with households continuing to conserve even after the program concluded. 

“The fact that households continued conserving water even after the summer, and even after the policy — and fines — ended, demonstrates that the policy was nudging behavioral changes in some households,” Ludovica Gazze, an assistant professor at the University of Warwick, said in a statement. 

Had the policy been scaled-up, Fresno could have saved 394 million gallons of water annually — helping achieve the 20-percent reductions in water use that Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has encouraged statewide, the study determined. 

But this long-term program failed to materialize, leading the researchers to conclude that the program may have worked “too well.” 

While many residents changed their habits, others were displeased, the authors explained. 

During the three-month pilot, the number of households calling the local utility increased by 654 percent, while identifiable customer complaints rose by 1,102 percent, according to the study. 

The resultant dissatisfaction ultimately led municipal officials to terminate the program, per the report. 

“In practice, the city returned to relying on water cops and in-person inspections,” the authors wrote. 

Prior to the program, water infractions “were rampant and punishments were rare,” the authors stressed. 

In the summer of 2016, although 68 percent of households violated restrictions at least once, only 0.4 percent of those violations were sanctioned, according to the study. 

Despite the monumental gains in conservation that the program achieved, the ensuing “political backlash caused Fresno to reverse its plan to scale automated enforcement of water use regulations citywide,” according to the study. 

The city began by issuing a fine moratorium the day after the pilot concluded, the authors noted. 

In April 2019, Fresno’s council then voted unanimously to lower maximum penalties from $200 to $100, as well as raise the permitted hours of outdoor water use and relax consumption thresholds, per the study. 

The same vote also stipulated that fines could not be imposed based on meter readings — a move that was “effectively disallowing automatic enforcement,” the researchers contended. 

“This experience serves as a cautionary tale about the limits of new technologies to solve compliance problems and underscores the need for research to identify the settings where they can succeed,” the authors stated. 

The researchers stressed the importance of finding a compromise between political pressures and the integration of such technologies, rather than giving up on them. 

“Policymakers should find ways to use this type of real-time data and bring their aging regulations into this century,” co-author Olga Rostapshova, executive director of the Energy & Environment Lab, said in a statement. 

“Doing so may require a gradual shift and careful calibration of community expectations,” she added. “We hope to partner with more cities to test out different approaches to find the right balance.” 

The Hill has reached out to the city of Fresno for comment. 

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