That is perhaps the most interesting question raised by the latest “Consumer Pulse” research by the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative.

In its third survey by the Collaborative of at least 1,000 consumers throughout the U.S. since 2011 reflecting the U.S. demographics, 54% of Americans who are heads of households and at least 18 years old have never heard of the “smart grid”.  Considering that a handful of utilities began rolling out smart grid programs in 2010 with new, digital, “smart” meters by and several are nearing complete deployment, this may come as surprise or a major disappointment.

Three years into deployment of the smart grid, what can boost adoption by consumers? CREDIT: PriceWaterhouseCoopers

If a utility has no plans to deploy smart meters, did not cash in on the ‘stimulus’ grants in 2010, has not begun communicating about the smart grid or is not heeding easily findable best practices by leading edge utilities from California to the Carolinas, the job of educating consumers about the myriad benefits to them personally, their power reliability and their environment is a lengthy, winding road ahead.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Help is not just on the way, it’s here.

“There continues to be a real need for consumer education around smart grid,” said Patty Durand, Executive Director of the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborate. “The current low levels of public awareness on this issue represent both a challenge and an opportunity, but they must be acted upon.”

The Collaborative’s mission to “advance the adoption of a reliable, efficient, and secure smart grid and ensure long-lasting sustainable benefits to consumers.” It is making significant strides since it launched in 2010. But more needs to happen if consumers are to learn about, use and benefit from improvements to the century-old way the U.S. makes and delivers electricity.

To be sure, if one resides in California, Oklahoma City, Houston, Baltimore or Charlotte – where smart meters are deployed or coming soon – awareness is likely not an issue.  Eventually, smart meters will replace virtually all analog meters.  But governments, regulators and industry can and should work more effectively to speed adoption.

If this means changing the business model most utilities and their regulators rely on, then more than California needs to re-engineer outmoded policies. Consumers and the U.S. economy deserve it.

Think about it. How many businesses and their technologies can prudently sustain themselves for more than 100 years?

Yes, energy utilities are part of every country’s infrastructure that cannot change quickly. But incentivizing utility executives to keep earning money only, or mostly, by how many new power plants and transmission lines they build does not make sense going forward.

If we can effectively create a wireless communications industry and deploy its infrastructure in 25 years or so, certainly substantive improvements can be made in an existing industry with the benefit of enlightened policymakers and the world’s technology providers.

The hurdles that separate consumers and the safe, secure and easy-to-understand deployment of digital meters cannot be dismissed. Regulators and consumer advocates have a job to do in ensuring a smarter grid scales up to serve everyone. That IS there job.

Perhaps that’s one priority for consumers advocates gathering Nov. 11-14 in Baltimore for the annual meeting of the National Association of State Utility Consumer Advocates and utility commissioners as part of the annual meeting of  the National Association of Regulatory Commissioners, or NARUC.

Very few smart grid experts can deny the benefits that can accrue to consumers. Protections are needed. And questions in some quarters about how smart meters usher in a new way for utilities to make more money need to be addressed.

We at The Energy Fix say enable utilities to make more money. Set new rules that incentivize them to achieve goals that serve the markets they have sole access to for power delivery and reliability.

New rules can work the other way too. They can penalize utilities for not achieving logical metrics for engineering a smarter grid with reasonable deadlines. Now risk-averse, investor-owned, utilities may shudder at the mere thought of a new regulatory landscape similar to what we’re seeing in California. Where they see risk, many industry leaders — including the close to 100 members and affiliates of the the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative — see opportunity.

There is reason to hope that a new “Smart Grid Customer Education Working Group” organized by the U.S. Department of Energy can make inroads. The working group is bringing stakeholders from the energy and utilities industry — including the Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative — together with the common purpose of sharing information and building best practices around smart grid customer education.

These rules and the risks that come with them can be written and managed prudently, along with reasonable deadlines. Let’s do it before another century passes.

For another perspective, read this assessment by Phil Carson of Intelligent Utility Daily here.