Jury still out on smart meters

By Robert and Sonia VoglSmartMeter
Illinois Renewable Energy Association

Until recently consumers of electricity had their use measured by analog meters attached to the outside of their homes. A meter reader came to the home on a monthly basis and recorded consumption. Customers received a monthly bill based on how much electricity they used and were charged a flat rate per kilowatt hour with no indication of what time of day it was used.

When the Federal American Reinvestment and Recovery Act was passed in 2009 making several billion dollars available for smart grid deployment and demonstration projects, the stage was set to remove analog meters and replace them with digital meters known as ”smart meters.”

ComEd has already installed over 1 million smart meters and expects to have approximately 4 million by the end of 2018. They claim smart meters have many benefits. They will signal when power is lost, help create the smart grid, eliminate the need for meter readers and allow customers to understand and manage their electric usage.

Advocates of the new meters pointed out that the digital meters would provide more timely and incremental data to both consumers and utilities as data would be recorded in 15 minute intervals.

The meters would be combined with new two-way communication and data management systems which would allow the utility to both connect and disconnect customer service from a centralized facility. The new metering system would obtain detailed customer electrical consumption throughout a full day.

The new meters could serve to initiate a new pricing system with the expectation that it would decrease overall electrical consumption or move it away from times of peak demand reducing the need to run more costly generators. Those who used less electricity during times of peak demand could be rewarded financially while those who did not would pay a higher price.

But Eversource Energy, which supports the development of the smart grid, found that customers did not vary their behavior in response to time of use pricing. Only 3 percent of those showing interest in their “Smart Grid Pilot” program were still enrolled at the end of the pilot time. Air conditioners, which account for the largest discretionary amount of power, consume about half of an average four-bedroom house’s power but are likely to use more than that portion during time of greatest use since lighting, the second highest draw, is not likely to be used during peak demand hours. Using dishwashers, washers and dryers between midnight and 2 a.m. would not reduce a bill significantly.

The system is expected to improve outage management and save costs as individual meters will indicate outages. Elimination of costs associated with meter readers could pass some of savings on to customers. Signaling the electric company when power is lost is more efficient than customers’ phoning in an outage. However, when power is lost over a large geographical area or for several hours, this efficiency is short-lived. Either way the time needed to repair the problem will be the same, whether reported by the system or the customer.

With the billions of dollars needed to install and operate the system the average residential customer could expect to pay an additional $3 per month for the upgrade. It is expected that it will take up to 5-7 years before customers will reap the economic benefits of the new system.

Critics are raising concerns about health and safety impacts, loss of privacy and whether smart meters are even needed. Eversource Energy accepts the need to modernize the grid but does not see smart meters as necessary as customers have shown little interest in moderating peak energy use. Given the rapid and widespread installation of smart meters across the country, any problems associated with their use are likely to become more apparent.

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