Utilities getting new customers ready for smart meters

ADDISON COUNTY — Next spring, Green Mountain Power (GMP) will look to install smart electric meters on the sides of all Vergennes homes and businesses. By the end of next year, GMP and fellow electricity provider Central Vermont Public Service (CVPS) will have installed the new devices at all participating homes and facilities across Addison County.

That was the message that representatives from the state’s two largest electric utilities delivered at an Addison County Chamber of Commerce-hosted smart grid presentation at Middlebury’s Ilsley Library last Wednesday.

Smart meters record a customer’s electricity use every 15 minutes and send that information to a wireless data collector nearby, which then transmits that to the utility. These meters are the crux of the smart electric grid. The idea behind the smart grid is that it has more data points and more information coming into the utility at a higher frequency, and end-users will be able to better view and understand their energy use.

“What makes the smart grid smart is the communication layer on top of the existing grid,” said CVPS representative Melinda Humphrey.

The U.S. Department of Energy in 2009 awarded a combined $69 million in grants to most Vermont utilities to install smart meters on 85 percent of Vermont residences and businesses. Utilities statewide agreed to provide an additional $69 million in funding.

“It’s something that’s going to have a very large impact on people’s lives,” said GMP representative Dave Coriell about the smart grid.

Aside from enhanced information, the aim of the smart grid is to mitigate periods of increased stress to the power grid. Over the past 50 years, the utility representatives explained that the grid has remained essentially the same, but users are asking it to handle more than three times its previous load.

“The amount of electricity per capita that we use has increased 300 percent (since 1960) and we have more capitas,” said Coriell. “By having more information about what’s happening on the grid, when it’s happening … there’s a huge opportunity to better balance out the electricity that’s flowing onto the grid and shave peaks and valleys by (encouraging) people to move off during some peak event.”

But some residents at the meeting expressed reservations about the new meters.

CITIZEN CONCERNS

Paul Kervick, founder of Living Well care home in Bristol, voiced health and safety concerns.

“I was just wondering if (health costs) were part of the question,” he said. “Has anyone looked at the health costs (of these new meters) and what that might mean for people?”

He did not get a straight answer to his question, but Humphrey told him that he could call CVPS and speak with an engineer. Coriell explained that others also raised this issue.

“That’s one of the thing that people say is a concern when they opt out, quite frankly,” he said.

Smart meters aren’t mandated, but if a customer opts not to have one installed, he or she will pay an additional $10 a month to have a utility worker read the meter.

“Smart meters (will be the) new standard for customers,” said Humphrey. “So as an age-old regulatory tenet, cost-causers should bear the cost.”

The most salient concern voiced at the meeting was the safety of data collected by the smart meters. Residents at the meeting were concerned that police, Internet hackers and other entities might be able to better track user activity.

“That (safety) concern has always been there and it’s even more so … because there’s more data to go around, which means we need to be more careful with the policies going forward and how we’re dealing with that data,” said Humphrey, who did not provide details about how data would be kept safe.

Local resident Jim Ferguson had further questions about the data.

“Who owns the data and who can have access to it?” he asked.

“That’s an interesting question and I believe regulators are working on that right now,” said Humphrey.

“I don’t think that’s a regulatory question, I think that’s a court question,” replied Ferguson.

He then asked about a utility’s capacity to shut off people’s power if they consume excessive amounts of electricity during a peak load.

“As a regulated utility we can’t unilaterally do that,” said Coriell. “Not to say that there is not some situation where that could happen.”

RATES AND FREEDOM

One thing is definite: Utilities want to encourage customers to reduce their power use at peak load times. While some customers rejoice in the prospect of more options and an opportunity to save money by curbing energy use, others see utilities’ move toward the smart grid as a restriction of their freedoms.

“The smart grid program should produce savings for the customer if the customer changes usage patterns to match (the utility’s) rate structure,” said Ferrisburgh Energy Coordinator Bob McNary, in a separate interview. “This is an appealing program for efficiency, but it takes away one more part of a person’s independence through financial coercion. You’re being told when to dry your clothes and run your air conditioner.”

At the meeting, Coriell acknowledged that some people won’t be able to participate in a peak-load-reduction plan.

 “We want to be sure that we don’t penalize people who are maybe less able to adjust their usage because some people have a home business or are homebound,” he said. “You can’t structure something to encourage everybody to just use electricity at night because (we’d) penalize a segment of the population.”

CVPS is looking at two options to decrease consumption during peak loads, said Humphrey: Rebates for users who reduce consumption during a period of peak electricity demand or slightly lower rates but with penalties that would apply when a certain consumption threshold was passed during peak. Other customers who like the current electricity rates, which stay fixed throughout the day, might still be able to choose a similar rate structure.

“It’s conceivable that … some people (could) stay on the traditional rate structure of you pay the same thing throughout the day,” said Coriell. “In the aggregate, though, there’s real benefits to the utility to encourage people to use energy at different points in the day, which in turn saves the utility money by not having to go out and buy more power at a peak time when it’s most expensive.

“If we encourage more people to buy power during low peak time,” he said, “we can level out our cost structure, which lowers our cost.”

Reporter Andrew Stein is at andrews@addisonindependent.com.


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