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Courtesy photo, Maine Central Power
The "smart meters" being installed in Maine look just like regular, dumb meters.
Monday, November 7, 2011

‘Smart meters’ just a first step toward a smart power grid

David Brooks

While you were sitting in the dark last week, waiting for power to be restored (I was only out two days and can’t complain), wouldn’t you have liked to have a magic device that would automatically let PSNH know your status?

Over in Maine, many electric customers will have such devices next year, due to the most sweeping “smart meter” program in the Northeast, and maybe in the country.

As time goes on, these boxes have the potential to help frugal users save money, and even improve the efficiency of the whole power grid. For the moment, though, let’s concentrate on what they can do in power outages.

Smart meters look pretty much like the electric meters we all have on our houses, although they’re digital, with no more slowly spinning dials. The big difference is their radio-frequency transmitters that send out signals about your power usage.

The signals will be monitored by the utility – in this case, Central Maine Power, which services the lower portion of Maine, involving about 80 percent of that state’s power usage. A smaller Maine utility, Bangor Hydro Electric Co., is also well along in the smart-meter market.

By next spring, when the network is done, CMP will use the data to create your bill (thus putting out of a job, unfortunately, the meter-readers who drive all day) and to plan maintenance and operations.

When power goes out, the meter will let them know immediately by sending out the computerized version of a dying gasp. When power returns, it will announce that with a digital whoop. If the utility misses the signal, it can send a “ping” to every meter and check the response.

Right now, after a major outage, Central Maine Power, like all utilities, has to send crews up and down streets to check every customer, or make cold calls to homes in affected neighborhoods – a time-consuming and expensive task.

This is why PSNH was asking customers to call their 800 number if they don’t have power, to make sure they haven’t been overlooked because of, say, a wire leading to an individual house that keeps it dark even when the street is repowered.

With smart meters, said CMP spokesman John Carroll, “Instead of having line workers driving down the road, patrolling, the crew will immediately be able to move along to the next problem area.”

I can’t say smart meters would’ve made a noticeable difference in the amount of time needed to get everybody’s power back last week, but it sure wouldn’t have hurt.

That’s cool, but from my point of view, the best thing about smart meters is that they allow time-of-day pricing, or variable pricing. This means that, say running my dishwasher at 10 p.m. would be cheaper than doing it at 3 p.m. – sort of like the old system with long-distance calls, when they were cheaper after 5 p.m.

I, for one, would like having some control over the price I pay for power. Live cheaper or die!

That change in usage patterns can also allow the grid to operate more efficiently, reducing peak usage.

Central Maine Power, owned by the Spanish energy giant Iberdrola (known in New Hampshire for building Lempster Mountain Wind Farm), has installed about 400,000 of what will eventually be 610,000 smart meters. It expects the whole system to go online next spring.

Smart meters do have drawbacks, starting with expense.

CMP’s upgrade will cost $200 million, half of which comes from the federal government as part of an effort to upgrade the nation’s power grid. The rest will come from ratepayers, although the utility thinks some will be offset by lowered operating costs (no need to pay those meter readers, for example).

A plan by Northeast Utilities, PSNH’s parent company, to install 1.2 million smart meters in Connecticut has hit a snag because the regulators say the benefit to customers isn’t worth the expense.

Variable pricing is complicated and easy to get wrong. Several California utilities have installed smart meters only to face backlash over allegations that the utility used time-of-day pricing to hide price hikes.

There are also privacy concerns. I can imagine hackers driving down the street and “sniffing” our power-usage data, although I’m not sure what they’d do with it.

Finally, there’s the group that has decided radio signals from meters (CMP uses the 2.4 gigahertz band, which I think is typical) are bad for their health, even though they somehow survive all the radio signals passing through their bodies every second from TV, radio, Wi-Fi, and whatever.

You won’t be surprised to hear there’s no scientific evidence to support their fears, nor will you be surprised to hear that nonetheless, their weepy anecdotes convinced Maine regulators to do something.

Lawmakers required CMP to let customers opt out of the program. Mainers can keep the old-fashioned analog meter if they want, although they have to cough up extra – up to $40, plus $20 a month – to cover the cost of having somebody drive out and read it. About 1 percent of CMP customers are opting out, said Carroll.

Smart meters are just the first step toward a “smart grid,” which will include a variety of two-way communication, computer systems and automation that should do a better job of making use of electric power generation.

And even this first step won’t be easy, Carroll admits.

“It’s going to be a real learning curve. Suddenly you’re getting so much more data, fine-grained data, about your system and operations, that’s going to create a lot of opportunity for us – better targeting maintenance, capital dollars, identifying problems more quickly – but we’ll have to learn how to make the best use of it,” he said.

Granite Geek appears Mondays in the Telegraph, and online at David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or