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Oahu, Hawaii, Inching Toward Smart Grid Technology

Six neighborhoods received a total of 5,200 smart meters -- the initial installation on the island.

by Kathryn Mykleseth, McClatchy News Service / September 26, 2014

Hawaiian Electric Co. said Wednesday that it has completed installing 5,200 smart meters in six different neighborhoods on Oahu.

HECO customers in Moanalua Valley, portions of Pearl City, Kaimuki, Diamond Head, Kahala and Waikiki can access the smart grid technology for information about their electricity use to help manage electric bills.

The smart meter pilot program is the initial installation of smart grid technology by HECO.

If the companywide smart grid plan proposed by HECO is approved by the Public Utilities Commission, the utility plans to install smart meters at all customer sites across Oahu, in Maui County and on Hawaii island by 2018.

The development of smart grids is a key part of HECO's energy transition plan that it filed with the Public Utilities Commission in August. The plan included goals for 2030 of meeting more than 65 percent of the state's energy needs by renewable energy sources, lowering customer bills by 20 percent and nearly tripling the amount of rooftop solar energy.

"The smart grid helps us better understand what's happening on the grid, what the electrical conditions are, what the voltage is like all the way down the lines to the customer's home," Darren Pai, Hawaiian Electric spokesman, said.

The information from smart meters helps the utility plan for customers who want to connect rooftop solar and assists the utility in providing reliable service, said HECO.

The smart meter system is a modern wireless communication network that is integrated with the existing electric grid. The system includes sensors to improve outage detection, advanced electric meters to help customers better manage their energy use, and automated system controls to improve outage restoration time.

Smart meter owners can access the data about their homes through the "My Energy Use" Web portal, or website. The online profile shows a home's energy use broken down by month, day, time of day, even by 15-minute increments.

Having the ability to measure the supply and demand of electricity will help the current electric system handle renewable energy sources, said the Blue Planet Foundation, a clean energy nonprofit.

"Just as smartphones have changed the way we communicate, smart meters can transform how we measure, manage, and use energy," Blue Planet Foundation Executive Director Jeff Mikulina said. "The ability to ‘itemize' our kilowatt-hours will give customers more insight and control over their energy use."

The utility is working on several different versions of the website. Two websites — one for commercial customers and one for residential customers — are online. The utility is working on a separate website for customers with PV systems.

The smart grid's sensors help to cut down the time it takes for the utility to correct blackouts, HECO said.

"In many cases switching the backup needs to be done manually. You have to send a guy out into the field and he has to manipulate the switch either at the substations or on one of the poles," Pai said. "With the smart grid, the system operators back at Ward Avenue can diagnose the problems and the customer can get their power back without having the guy drive out to the neighborhood."

There are 75 meter readers and about 25 field service workers on Oahu who may be affected by the change to smart meters. The workers are adapting to the advancing technology, said Brian Ahakuelo, business manager and financial secretary for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 1260.

"At IBEW Local 1260 we are embracing change," Ahakuelo said. "That is technology that we can't stop. We believe it is good for the customers and it is good for Hawaiian Electric and it is good for our members as they move into the new age with the utility industry."

Ahakuelo said it is going to be a challenge to protect all levels in those jobs but that he expects similar results to what he saw on Kauai last year.

"The smart meter is already running in KIUC and it spawned new types of jobs," Ahakuelo said.

Kauai Island Utility Cooperative finished installing 30,413 meters, covering most customers, at the end of 2013.

The change to smart meters on Kauai was controversial, with some customers concerned about the effects from the meter's wireless transmitter and about privacy issues.

Last year KIUC member Adam Asquith filed a suit in U.S. District Court saying KIUC's plan to install smart meters in 33,000 homes and businesses on the island violated constitutional protections against abuse of government authority and unreasonable searches and seizures.

Kauai offered customers the option of not using smart meters if they were willing to pay an extra $10.27 a month.

"We have an opt-out choice. We give people the choice if they don't want to have a smart meter. We have about 2,800 people who have chosen to not have one," Jim Kelly, communications manager at KIUC, said.

The $10 charge covers the cost of manually reading the older meters.

The KIUC voted in January to keep the opt-out charge. Of the 10,901 ballots cast, 74 percent of KIUC members voted to keep the fees while 26 percent were opposed.

HECO offered the technology to its customers the right way, Asquith said.

"I applaud them that their program was voluntary to begin with," he said.

Oahu customers in the six selected neighborhoods were given the option to decide whether they wanted a smart meter installed. Those customers are currently not charged for opting out, said the utility.

©2014 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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