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  • This is the sort of analog electric meter we're all used to, with slowly spinning dials ...
  • ... and this is a digital meter, of the sort being installed by N.H. Electric Cooperative. They send out data about electric useage wirelessly, in 1.5-second bursts, 7 to 10 times a day, over the 900 Mhz band, one that's often used for cell phones. Extra machinery, called "gatekeepers," let them turn on time-of-usage pricing, says NH Electric Coop.
Monday, April 30, 2012

Electric ‘smart meters’ are coming, raising hopes and a few concerns

David Brooks

If branding is everything, the person who coined the phrase “smart meters” deserves a pat on the back. Who could oppose electric utility meters that are less dumb?

Many people, as it turns out, several of whom showed up in Concord earlier this month to support a bill that would put a damper on the whole smart meter push.

I’ll get into that later, but first, let’s consider the state of smart meters in New Hampshire.

Note that the term “smart meter” has no set definition, and spans everything from almost-dumb, digital versions of your current spinning dial analog meter whose main function is to report usage without the need for meter readers visiting your home, to networked, interactive devices, which can control your thermostat.

One value of smart meters is that they help utilities figure spot outages (meters have capacitors that send “last-gasp calls” when power is cut), but their real value is the ability to provide insight to consumers and companies, and to empower “time-of-usage” billing. TOU, as its called, charges more during peak hours – typically weekday afternoons in the summer – and less the rest of the time, providing an incentive to do the laundry at night or raise the temperature on the air conditioner thermostat.

The idea is to cut power usage during peak times, when the most expensive – and often the most polluting – power systems have to be turned on to meet demand. A small reduction in peaks can produce big savings for utilities, which otherwise have to buy extra power on the very expensive “spot market” and pay higher rates, called capacity charges, to the New England grid operator.

No smart electric meters exist in Greater Nashua because PSNH isn’t installing them, although its parent, Northeast Utilities, is involved in a big test in Connecticut. Elsewhere in New Hampshire, Unitil and New Hampshire Electric Co-op are both smart meter fans.

Unitil has installed digital meters for most of its 75,000 electric customers around Concord and the Seacoast. These automatically report data about usage, sending the information over power lines back to Unitil HQ at regular intervals.

Unitil ran a pilot TOU program last summer, under oversight of the Public Utilities Commission. The regular rate was 7 cents per kilowatt-hour, while off-peak was 5 cents and on-peak 9 cents. Five “critical peak” days, when temperatures were very hot and air conditioners would be stressing the grid, saw rates up to a whopping 61 cents for the volunteers.

How much load shifting or load reduction resulted? The results are still being reviewed, said Unitil spokesman Alec O’Meara, but at the least, it indicated that a lot of people are interested in being part of such a program.

The test has an interesting extra component: A small group of volunteers had an extra thermostat installed, which allowed Unitil to turn down their air conditioners remotely, trimming power usage during the peakiest of peak usage.

The prospect of the utility controlling your devices is one of the things that haunts smart meter foes, who see it as a thin end of a Big Brother wedge.

Several spoke at a recent meeting of the House Science, Energy and Technology Committee about a bill that would require homeowners to give permission before a digital data-reading meter could be turned into a two-way device allowing more control by the utility. A proposed amendment would go much further, requiring written permission from every homeowner before any digital meter could be installed, and even requiring utilities to restore analog meters if a homeowner balks.

The bill will be the topic of more discussion at 10 a.m. on Tuesday, May 8.

Unitil wasn’t mentioned at the hearing that I attended, but New Hampshire Electric Co-op certainly was. The co-op has customers in rural areas throughout New Hampshire, some as close as Derry. It has installed the meters for about 50,000 of 83,000 customers and hopes to have them all in place and running, as well as a company-wide communication system, by the end of the year, said spokesman Seth Wheeler.

The $36 million project, 45 percent funded by a stimulus grant from the Department of Energy, will save the co-op about $1 million a year in meter-reading costs, said Wheeler.

When time-of-use pricing starts up (the co-op is not regulated by the PUC, so this can happen if the cooperative’s elected board agrees), more savings will be possible by trimming peak usage, said Wheeler.

Another benefit? A few hundred members in a pilot program will be able to get wireless video screens that will give real-time data about their whole-house energy usage, to help them focus in on power-hogging devices.

I’d love that, myself. It drives me crazy that I can’t really do a good job of understanding my own power usage, regardless of hand-held devices like Kill-a-Watt.

Some speakers at Concord feared that Unitil could actually differentiate among devices as it gathered the data, thus knowing whenever, say, your hot-water heater kicked in (“those folks at 100 Main St. hardly ever take showers!”).

That seems far-fetched and shouldn’t get in the way of providing useful feedback for consumers, although it behooves us to keep an eye on the technology to make sure it doesn’t happen down the road.

Speaking of far-fetched, a few speakers also expressed heartfelt but vague fears that wireless smart meters are somehow medically dangerous. The co-op’s meters use the 900 mHz band used by cell phones; only have one-quarter of a watt of power, about a quarter of a cell phone; and send signals in bursts of 1.5 seconds or less every couple of hours, so there seems no validity to these concerns.

The biggest worry about smart meters is that they’ll let utilities hide rate increases in the more complicated bills – just as phone companies do.

I want time-of-use pricing to give more control over my electric bill, but don’t want to have to spend my waking hours worrying about overcharges.

The meters might be smarter, but I’m not.

Granite Geek appears Mondays in the Telegraph, and online at www.granitegeek.org. David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com.