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Can New Smart Meters Change How We Use Energy?

The new meters — which are being deployed now in upstate New York — can tell you how much energy you are using minute by minute and even have the capacity to show how much individual appliances use.

(TNS) — Central New York customers are first in line for new “smart meters” that National Grid will roll out across its Upstate territory to all 1.7 million customers.

You’ve probably seen the TV ads. Installations started in August and will finish up four years from now.

It’s a huge investment – hundreds of millions of dollars. The new meters can tell you how much energy you are using minute by minute. They even have the capacity to show how much individual appliances use.

The question is, what will you do with that information?

National Grid will use the advanced meters to cut labor costs and address outages more quickly. The utility promises there will be big benefits on the other side of the meter, too: Armed with better information about their energy usage, consumers will get more efficient.

Without consumer benefits, the estimated $650 million cost of the new meters would not pencil out, according to National Grid’s regulatory filings with the state Public Service Commission. But the greater household efficiency from smart meters will depend in part on programs that have yet to be rolled out, including energy monitoring apps and electric rates that vary by time of day.

Some of the promise of smart meters depends on how customers respond and what incentives they have to cut back their usage, especially during periods of high demand when costs are the highest.

“There are a lot of benefits, potentially,’’ said Jessica Azulay, executive director of Alliance for a Green Economy, a nonprofit focused on environmental utility issues. “But there’s also cost. It’s an expensive investment.’’

In addition to installing the meters, it will be important to develop programs customers can use “to change the things that actually cost the system money, and therefore cost us money,” Azulay said.

Fewer truck trips

National Grid is installing Revelo meters manufactured by Landis + Gyr. The state-of-the-art instruments and others like them are far more advanced than the previous generation of smart meters, according to a 2022 report by consulting firm Deloitte.

The meters communicate via low-frequency radio signals with a wireless network, eliminating the need for National Grid to drive past each customer’s house to get a reading.

Software updates can be pushed out to the meters from the wireless network.

There’s no question the meters will make National Grid’s operation more efficient. As it is now, the utility often can’t tell for sure when your power is out unless you call them.

The Revelo meters will not only provide real-time usage data but will also show any voltage anomalies that could indicate impending problems like a failing transformer or tree limbs on a line.

National Grid anticipates saving millions of dollars. For one thing, the company won’t have to send meter readers driving around to collect data for billing. (No layoffs are planned, by the way. Staff will be reassigned, utility officials say.)

Information from the smart meters will enable National Grid to adjust voltages to reduce losses on the system while keeping service at optimal levels. And as more electric heat pumps, solar panels and battery systems are added by customers, smart meters will help utilities manage the grid.

When it comes time to disconnect service, either because a customer is moving or because they haven’t paid the bill, the work can be done remotely rather than sending out a truck. That not only saves time and labor, it eliminates greenhouse gases emitted by the trucks.

But will consumers change the way they use energy?

Bringing down the peak

One of the tricky parts of running an electric grid is that electricity is hard to store in large quantities. So we all pay the price of maintaining enough capacity to provide power when demand reaches its highest peak.

Smart meters should help us find ways to reduce peak demand, which would help lower costs for everyone. But what’s the incentive for an individual?

For five years, from 2017 through 2021, National Grid ran a test in Clifton Park, a town in Saratoga County, where it outfitted 13,000 households with a previous generation of smart meter. The utility encouraged those customers to reduce their electricity consumption on days when temperatures soared above 85 degrees. Customers could earn points toward a gift card.

About 30% to 40% of the residents participated each year in the “peak-time rewards’' program, many of whom never bothered to redeem their points for gift cards, the utility reported. A majority of those surveyed liked the program and said they thought it was good for the community.

But rewarding customers with gift cards requires a funding source and is not sustainable, the utility concluded last year in a post-mortem report on Clifton Park. National Grid said that “innovative pricing structures may be more effective.”

National Grid did not test an alternative rate structure in Clifton Park, which would have required special billing arrangements to be approved by regulators. In focus groups, some customers expressed interest in having rates that would vary by time of day, but others thought it sounded like homework.

“Some customers readily understood concepts of demand and time-variant pricing, while others expressed frustration and … interpreted such rates may be too much work,’’ the company reported.

The utility currently has a voluntary “time-of-use” billing rate aimed at the owners of electric vehicles. Customers are urged to charge their cars overnight, when the demands on the system are lowest.

Similar rate structures may be developed for other customers now that smart meters are coming, according to National Grid’s regulatory filings.

“We all have a big interest in bringing down the peak,’’ Azulay said.

The Revelo meters can be tied in with a household’s WiFi system, which would pave the way for third parties to develop apps for customers to monitor and control their energy usage. Until that happens, customers will obtain usage information from their smart meter by logging into their National Grid account online.

In a pilot study in Wisconsin, utility officials found that nearly one-third of customers who were provided with real-time usage data took actions to reduce their consumption – turning off lights, lowering the thermostat or unplugging appliances when not in use, among others.

That study, reported by consulting firm Cadmus, found one of the biggest sources of potential savings to be so-called “always on’' appliances, which consume power even when not in use. Cadmus estimated that overall household electric demand could be cut 9% with better control over those appliances.

Paying for old and new

The move to smart meters has been years in the making. National Grid asked for permission to install them in 2017, and in November 2020 the Public Service Commission approved the request.

The utility has spent the past two years developing its wireless network and back-office systems to support the meters, said Jared Paventi, speaking for National Grid.

Some consumer advocates were skeptical. Public Utility Law Project, an Albany nonprofit that represents low-income customers, opposed National Grid’s smart meter plan because of the expense.

PULP representatives pointed out that customers are still paying for meters that were installed by National Grid two decades ago – the ones that allowed mobile vehicles to collect readings. As of National Grid’s last rate request in 2020, the company was still owed $119.5 million for the older electric and gas meters.

“Many New York utility customers are still paying for the costs of standard meters,’’ Laurie Wheelock, executive director of PULP, wrote in an email. “There’s a risk of overlaying costs, having customers still paying off their standard meter while also now paying the costs associated with the new.”

In their filings at the PSC, National Grid officials said that the existing meters were nearing the end of their useful life. One of the savings ascribed to the smart meter project is not having to replace the old units, the utility said.

Opting out will cost you

National Grid has hired Utility Partners of America to install most of the new meters. Installations began in late August in areas south and east of Syracuse. So far, about 15,000 of the new meters have been installed – less than 1% of the 1.69 million to be done.

For now, the utility is only installing electric meters. The work takes about 10 minutes, during which the power must be shut off.

Installations of new gas meters will begin in about a year, Paventi said. (The gas modules communicate through the electric meters to transmit usage data to the utility.)

National Grid contacts customers in advance with the date and time of their installation. Customers can reschedule if necessary, Paventi said.

If the meter is outdoors, the customer doesn’t need to be home. Disabled customers and those who use life-support devices can schedule an appointment at their convenience to ensure their safety, Paventi said.

After the meter is installed, customers will have access to their usage data by logging into the “My Account’' portal on National Grid’s website.

Customers who don’t want the new meters can opt out, but it will cost them. National Grid will charge customers an extra $17.71 a month if they insist on keeping their old electric and gas meters, or $11.64 a month if they only have electric service.

Already, Paventi said, some customers have opted out. Most cite “health and safety concerns” related to radio frequency electromagnetic fields as their reason, he said.

The Revelo meters have RF emissions much lower than cell phones, microwaves or wireless internet, National Grid says. They comply with FCC safety regulations.

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