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What is smart metering and is it coming to your neighborhood anytime soon

20 May 2011

"Smart meters" and "smart grids" have been in the news recently particularly with federal stimulus program grants that promote the devices that provide real time monitoring of electricity usage. But while smart meters are being installed in about 1,000 state buildings in Mississippi as part of a stimulus grant, it could be several years before smart meters are deployed widely in the private sector.

There are two ways to save energy and money with smart meters, said Keith McInerney, director of smart grid deployment for Entergy Systems Inc. One is that customers can use the feedback they get on their energy use to conserve and use less energy. Second, it can allow utilities to reduce operation costs, savings that can be passed on to the customer.

"There are utility operational savings on meter-reading costs," McInerney said. "We can get a meter reading remotely from a desk. We don't have to roll a truck or get someone to walk a route to get all the meter readings. And when people are moving in and out, we can reduce costs by reading the meter through the phone, and with a punch of a button we can turn the power off and on. It is a convenience and also saves gas, wear and tear on vehicles and personnel time. "

Another cost savings is reducing theft from the system. As soon as a meter is removed out of a socket, a message is sent so the utility knows about it immediately. That can reduce meter theft, which can reduce the cost of operations.

Still another advantage is that smart meters in some cases replace old meters that over time can become inaccurate.

"These are solid state digital meters," McInerney said. "It is like going from a wind up clock to a digital clock. It is more accurate. "

Another advantage is being able to accurately pinpoint outages. When the utility has an outage, it knows exactly where it is, allowing it to respond much quicker to get power restored.

McInerney has been managing a smart meter stimulus pilot project in a limited income residential area of New Orleans. He said the project has helped Entergy learn lot more about the benefits and costs of a smart grid, especially in understanding how that demographic would use the information from smart meters to reduce energy usage.

For example, there is a program called "demand response. " A customer's air conditioning unit can be controlled so the compressor is turned off for 20 minutes each hour between 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays - the time when utilities see peak demands for power. Under the pilot program, participating customers not only had lower energy bills, but received a $12 rebate at the end of the month.

"Most customers don't even realize the compressor has turned off because the temperature doesn't rise that much in the house," McInerney said. "What the does for the utility is it helps us reduce power on the peak when power is the most expensive. In exchange for that, we flow those savings back to these customers. "

Another way customers can save is by budgeting power. Say a customer wants her power bill in the summer to be less than $100. By looking at her smart meter device, which is about the size of an iPhone, she can tell whether or not they are on track with power usage to stay within her budget.

"The display shows them what they are using instantly, and also how many kilowatt hours they have used that month and their projected bill based on that usage period," he said. "The biggest behavior they can change is the temperature setting. Some people keep their homes really cold with the temperature set in the low 70s or even the high 60s. With the smart meter, they know what their actions cost. They have that control now. It gives them more knowledge about what they are doing and how they can affect their bills. "

Will the smart meter be coming soon to other residential areas as well as businesses? McInerney said you will get different answers depending on which utility company you ask. Some think the technology should be adopted now. Entergy sees the cost of smart meters and smart grids as still being higher than the benefits.

"But the cost is falling every day,' McInerney said. "The benefits are getting better and better. Eventually those two lines are going to cross and when the cost is below the benefits, I think you will see a lot more people jump in. That may be two or three years out. We are doing pilots. We are testing a lot of stuff. We are doing a lot of customer research. But I don't think the benefits outweigh the costs yet. "

He said it comes down to what the customers want. Some customers are absolutely wanting more information about how they use their power. But there are also devices available for under $100 that people can buy to monitor their home or business energy use.  And a $20 device called a Kill AWatt can measure energy use of appliances plugged into an outlet.