Truth or Dare: Smart Meters

With the Institute of Electric Efficiency reporting more than 36 million smart meters installed from 2007 through May 2012 and a target of 65 million by 2015, it appears that smart meters are here to stay. By 2015, smart meters will replace electromechanical meters on approximately one-third of all homes, despite opposition that has allowed some customers to opt-out of the program (usually with a fee, such as $75 plus $10 per month). This smart meter growth isn’t much of a surprise, considering projects that included them received the largest percentage of the $4.5 billion that the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA) provided to utilities.

Like smartphones and the smart grid, a precise definition of “smart meter” can be elusive, but in general, it refers to an electronic (or digital) meter that measures and records usage over time intervals of an hour or less and allows for two-way communication between the meter and the utility. It can also extend beyond the meter into the customer’s facility.

While smart meters are used for gas and water meter readings as well, we focus on electric meters, more commonly called watt-hour meters. Some of these meters have had demand interval and/or time-of-use capabilities for years, especially in industrial and commercial facilities. However, a person physically read the meter each month and collected this data.

Even with the onset of automated meter reading (AMR) capabilities to electronic meters (which were low data rate, one-way, read-only communication systems), actual smart meters have more capabilities in recording data (such as real-time power quality and power interruption notification) and communication capabilities that allow for remote service turn-off/on, control of appliances within the home, and in-home/online displays for customers. These features require a much more extensive communication and data management system—referred to as advanced metering infrastructure (AMI)—to control communication, data collection, analysis and additional actions based on a regular schedule or request.

Taking a look around
A web search for “myths about smart meters” turns up more than a million hits. A common result is “Smart Meters: Myth vs. Fact.” What opponents find as fact, proponents find as fiction, and vice versa. The proponents (mainly the electric utilities) say smart meters will do the following:

• Help prevent blackouts by allowing the utility to shut off loads when needed, help dispatch crews more quickly to restore power more quickly if it goes out, and allow the utilities to redirect electricity to where it is needed

• Save money (estimated $20 per month) for residential users

• Allow consumers to use electricity when it is cheaper and show residential users how much each appliance costs them

• Improve the quality of the electrical supply

• Help reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 5–16 percent by reducing peak demand

Meanwhile, a variety of public interest groups led the opposition, with an equal number of claims alleging smart meters will do the following:

• Cause health problems and subject homeowners to harmful radiation

• Cause homeowners’ electric bills to increase significantly when installed

• Allow the utility to turn off appliances without consent

• Allow utilities and government agencies to invade homeowners’ privacy and electrically see inside their houses, even determining what TV shows they watch

• Create a safety risk to homes as smart meters can catch fire

• Present a cyber-security risk to the electric grid

In 2010, Vattenfall, a Swedish utility, presented a paper at the IEEE Power, Energy, and Society conference on Innovative Smart Grid Technologies, and it revealed other potential smart meter benefits. Explanatory comments are noted below in italics. Note that the majority of these points mostly benefit the utility company.

• “Automatic collection and compilation of outage statistics”—the Customer Average Interruption Duration Index and other reliability indices involving the number of customers that the utility must report to public utility commissions

• “Automatic analysis of load and voltage to spot sources of disturbances”—which can only be within a given facility or somewhere on the utility system since meters are located at the point of common coupling

• “Allowing the customer service center to make spontaneous or scheduled meter readings”—by billing department

• “Automatic tariff changes”

• “Customer complaint handling”—the benefit smart meters provide here is unclear as outages are already mentioned above, and customers wanting their old meters back are not beneficial either

• “Network capacity planning using precise metered values for peak load, categorizing customers by load characteristics [and] analyzing network losses”

• “Locating electricity theft”

• “Internal analysis of reactive power demand”—i.e., should a power factor penalty be added to the bill?

Finding fact in the fiction
So, to minimize the risk of offending either side, let’s examine what is under the smart meter hood and what it really can and can’t do before evaluating the merit of the various parties’ aforementioned claims. Like most instruments that measure electricity, smart meters share a common architecture as shown in the figure on the next page.

As described above, the meter converts the analog voltage and current signals from the power lines into binary data used to compute various power parameters. These parameters are further computed over time intervals for the information used for electrical usage billing. All of this information is stored internally until needed to update a local display on the meter, the display located elsewhere in the house where the consumer can see what is happening, and/or to the billing and the utility’s distribution operations departments. For the most part, the process continues autonomously, based on utility billing periods. The remote servers or the local displays can contact the meter for some “real-time” data or historical data, or the meter can initiate action on its own, such as alerting the utility distribution server if an interruption of longer than one minute occurs. It also can receive and store an updated rate structure to change the costs associated with electrical usage.

A smart meter does only what it is told. It doesn’t see inside a house to check which reality show its residents are watching. However, smart meters have electronic circuits that emit electromagnetic radiation, the same as TVs, computers, microwaves, washing machines, clock radios, and just about every appliance and device that one plugs into an electrically powered receptacle. The potential harm a smart meter would cause is nothing compared to, for example, a cellphone. And there is no direct connection to the grid’s operating and system protection equipment from a smart meter that would allow a terrorist to bring the grid down, as some claim.

A smart meter has no capabilities to save energy; it only measures usage and provides the information on which users must act. Studies have shown that the expenses incurred by the utility to install the smart meters tend to run higher than initially planned, the savings projected by the utility take longer to realize, and the consumer’s savings usually are bolstered by in-home (or online) displays accompanied by “programs that successfully inform, engage, empower and motivate people,” according to a 2011 study by the nonprofit American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy that reviewed more than 36 different residential smart metering and feedback programs internationally and came to these conclusions. Other studies have found incentives or rebates affect behavior but savings drop off with the rebates.

There is little doubt that smart meters will save electric utility companies operating costs, and with many public utility commissions approving the federal funding and increased rates to fund the installations, the improvement to the bottom line will be enhanced, and even more so as utilities join companies that have already taken advantage of the capabilities of smart meters to charge more for peak than off-peak usage. What will be the average bill increase from this new rate structure for residential customers? Even without a smart meter, couldn’t the consumer save money instead by changing the setting and timing of usage of air conditioners, pool pumps and hot water heaters; operate appliances with full loads and turn off when not in use; cook efficiently; and replace inefficient appliances and lighting?

Smart meters aren’t going away, and opting out can be an expensive proposition for an opponent. Maybe it is time to challenge smart meter proponents and opponents to a game of Truth or Dare and inform consumers about what really is going on and what smart meters really can do for suppliers and electricity consumers. Maybe then it will be clear who is really making or saving money with smart meter installations, and both sides of the meter can benefit.

BINGHAM, a contributing editor for power quality, can be reached at 732.287.3680.

About the Author

Richard P. Bingham

Power Quality Columnist
Richard P. Bingham, a contributing editor for power quality, can be reached at 732.287.3680.

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