Smart meters benefit utilities, enhance customer satisfaction

Feb 9, 2014

Smart Meter

‘Smart meter’ so named because not only it can measure the amount of electric power consumed by the user, but it also can relay that measurement to the utilities over wired or wireless communication network. Thus, smart meters can eliminate the laborious meter reads that the utility meter readers otherwise had to carry out each month. With smart meters, utilities can reduce their operation cost by eliminating the expensive truck rolls to the consumer residences to carry out manual meter reads each month.

Smart meters have been used by industries and commercial facilities for quite some time now. However, they became popular and are being widely installed at the residential customer premises more recently i.e. in the last 5-7 years, with the help of various federal and state government funding. In spite of all the benefits it provides, the smart meter journey has not been always very smooth. There have been backlashes due to various consumer concerns. A section of the consumers feel that smart meters are not going to be cheap, as utilities will ultimately pass on the smart meter cost to the consumers through electric rate increase. Also, collection of energy usage data from the residential consumers is being seen as infringement of their privacy.  In addition, there have been unfounded rumors that are floating around about the radio frequency hazards caused due to the wireless signal from these meters. Given these concerns, utilities in many states have launched ‘opt out’ programs for smart meters by which consumers can choose not to install smart meters by paying an additional monthly fee, ranging anywhere between $10-$55, for continuation of manual meter reads.

And for those consumers, who are still on the border and undecided to go either way, here are my two cents. I believe the benefits of smart meters on the long run will be even more far reaching. Once deployed, smart meters can send out ‘last gasp signal’, which is an automatic message to the utility indicating that consumer residence has run into a power outage, on the immediate occurrence of such an event. Utilities can use software applications such as ‘Fault location analysis’ and the last-gasp data to analyze the outage event. This will enable utilities in faster crew deployment for outage restoration activities resulting in reducing outage duration from multiple hours to within an hour, increased customer satisfaction and avoidance of hundreds of thousands dollar worth of penalty from utility commissions.

Smart meter can provide accurate accounting of energy usage thus reducing the possibility of energy theft. Meter data can provide increased visibility of the electric network by indicating areas of overloads and under loads- thus helping utilities manage and control electric power distribution more efficiently and enhance the reliability of supply to the consumers.

In today’s digital world, there is high penetration of expensive electronic equipment such as TV, music system, cell phone, tablet, laptop, computer, etc. in consumer’s residences. Software applications such as ‘volt-var control’ can be used to analyze the smart meter –relayed voltage and power data from the consumer premises, and maintain these electric parameters within safe limits throughout the power distribution network.  This will reduce the possibility of any utility as well as consumer equipment damage, the cost of which can range in millions of dollars.

With smart meters, consumers can receive price signals from the utilities and change own behavior to become more energy efficient during times when the energy price is significantly high. In the process, consumers will reduce their energy bill and help the utilities not run fossil fuel based peaking power plants, which they otherwise would have, during heavy load-high price situations. By helping the utilities in their ‘go green’ movement, consumers will ultimately gain additional satisfaction.

Despite the concerns raised by a small section of the consumers, there has been a high degree of interest in smart meters as the benefits far outweigh the concerns. Smart meter deployment is in full swing at many utilities and I expect to see full scale deployment by many more utilities. However, we will need to be patient; as it will take couple of years before the full benefits of these technologies can be realized. And I am sure, smart meter and the smart grid as a whole, will have a significant impact on people’s life and they will positively change the way people live today.