Dumbfounded by “SmartMeters”

UPDATE: In late January, 2011, The New York Times published a good overview of how the controversy over smart meters has evolved since this post.

When utilities and the California Public Utilities Commission hatched plans to bolt a “smart meter” onto every household, the premise–and the promise–was that by digitally tracking just how much they were using and spending, customers would be able to make smarter choices about their energy use, ultimately saving money and cutting carbon emissions.

Smart meters are also a critical component of the nascent but much vaunted “smart grid,” in which household appliances and electric cars communicate with the vast power transmission network, and optimize things like when to recharge.

But as I report in my radio story for The California Report, many PG&E customers consider them more bane than boon (PG&E uses the trademark “SmartMeter,” whereas I may refer to them generically as “smart meters”).

Part of what’s riled up customers in Bakersfield and elsewhere in California is that PG&E hasn’t provided the devices to help watch the watts. Customers can go online to track their energy use over the last 24 hours, but that’s about it. And in the meantime, consumers are paying the cost of the new meters, and in some cases, higher bills that they blame on those meters.

Liz Keogh shows me the "SmartMeter" outside her Bakersfield home. Photo: Sasha Khokha

Liz Keogh shows me the "SmartMeter" outside her Bakersfield home. Her summer 2009 bills went up by half after it was installed. (Photo: Kristin Torres)

Julie Fitch, who heads the energy division of the California Public Utilities Commission, told me she thinks those real-time tracking gadgets won’t actually change consumer habits that much. “There’s a certain percentage of us who are interested in seeing what our energy use is at all times, and are fascinated by it, but I think it’s probably a small percentage in the grand scheme of things,” Fitch said.

Fitch says consumers will see more of an advantage from smart meters when home appliances can communicate with the devices.

“The reality is the grid right now is that it’s actually fairly dumb,” Fitch said. There’s a lot of manual decisions that need to be made in order to get the electricity from a generator to your house. I think what we’re looking at is a much more automatically controlled situation where appliances are automatically linked in with smart devices.”

For example, a fully integrated system could “decide” to run your clothes dryer at off-peak times, to relieve strain on the grid and possibly save money. But the whole idea of charging more for power at different times of day, known as peak pricing, troubles consumer advocates like Mark Toney. He heads The Utility Reform Network (TURN), a consumer advocacy group based in Oakland.

“We want to make sure this doesn’t unduly harm seniors, for instance, who are home bound,” Toney told me, pointing out that folks don’t have a choice sometimes about whether to run their air conditioner in the sweltering Central Valley heat.  “We don’t want them to be faced with the choice of being safe in their home or being subject to heat stroke because they shut off their AC because they can’t afford it,” he said.

Toney is also concerned that struggling customers are more likely to see their power shut off,  if they can’t keep up with the bills.  Smart meters allow utilities to turn off power remotely, without having to send a crew out to someone’s home–and that, he says, gives the company less incentive to negotiate payment plans.

The CPUC’s response? Utilities will still have to follow standard procedures, including advance notice of shut-offs.

Meanwhile an independent lab appointed by the CPUC continues to test PG&E SmartMeters to try to determine why some of them are malfunctioning. Some customers now have “side-by-side” test installations, with both analog and digital meters tracking electricity use in tandem. Strangely enough, the deployment of smart meters by Southern California’s two major utilities has gone relatively smoothly, with just a fraction of the complaints that PG&E has logged.

In my radio story, I interviewed Bakersfield Resident Liz Keogh, who saw her electric bill spike after her SmartMeter was installed.  Keogh is very energy-conscious; her home is a veritable showcase of energy-saving gadgetry. There could be any number of technical reasons why the new meters led to larger bills. Keogh developed her own personal theory (since disproved by independent tests), which she demonstrates in the video below, using some unlikely props. It’s a good example of the broad spectrum of consumer objections to the technology.

The Backlash Against “SmartMeters”

A "SmartMeter" mounted on a Fresno home. (Photo: Sasha Khokha)

A "SmartMeter" mounted on a Fresno home. (Photo: Sasha Khokha)

The California Public Utilities Commission says it will name a consultant sometime this week to start testing PG&E digital “SmartMeters,” which customers have blamed for spikes in their utility bills.

The announcement came after state Senator Dean Florez (D-Shafter) held a press conference in Bakersfield to question why the CPUC hadn’t taken action. Last October, the Commission agreed to quickly hire an independent contractor to test the meters.
Florez got involved in the flap last year after some of his Central Valley constituents saw their bills triple with the new meters, even if customers bought energy saving appliances, or in some cases, when no one was living at the home. “The biggest savings recognized so far has been to PG&E, who were able to lay off numerous meter readers,” said Florez in a press release.

PG&E has blamed the higher bills on rate increases and hot weather (not a new phenomenon in the Central Valley, where people coddle their air conditioners as if they were household pets).

The Bakersfield Californian reported last month that the backlash here in the Central Valley is catching the attention of industry analysts and utilities nationwide, who want to avoid a spreading backlash against the new technology.

One of the groups sounding a warning is the Division of Ratepayer Advocates, an independent consumer advocacy division of the CPUC. Last week, it advised the Commission to reject a Southern California Gas application to fund its own $1 billion smart meter program. DRA argued not that utility bills would spike with new digital meters, but that money could be better spent on energy efficiency measures and appliances. DRA says SoCalGas is overestimating how much customers will reduce their usage if they can see a digital display of how much energy they’re paying for.

Part of the concept behind smart meters is to help utilities with “demand response” strategies; providing timely feedback to customers, who can use their home computers to see exactly how and when they’re using power, customers might then alter their consumption patterns to avoid peak demand periods, and cut utility bills.

But some of that strategy has already backfired. The San Francisco Chronicle recently reported that a document PG&E filed with the CPUC says the advanced digital smart meters will let the company shut off power to more customers who fall behind on their bills, since they can do so without having to send a crew to a customer’s home. The meters may be smart but consumer advocates say it’s a dumb strategy that will make it easier for the utility giant to leave customers out in the cold.

“Cool” Technology to Relieve Grid Lock

Kristine Wong is a student at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. She is currently serving an internship at KQED Climate Watch.

Copper meets ice in the Ice Bear rooftop cooler. Photo: Kristine Wong

Copper meets ice in the Ice Bear rooftop cooler. Photo: Kristine Wong

Latest technology designed to improve grid performance, decrease peak energy demand
By Kristine Wong
When the hot weather hits town, everyone wants to cool off. Some down a cold drink, others take a dip in the pool. But most just turn on a switch–for the air conditioning or the fan. But when everybody jumps for the switch at the same time, the electrical grid is pushed to the max, which can lead to blackouts, as well as use of peak energy generators. Peak generators are used just a few times during the year but use more fossil fuels than other power plants.

Now, with the realization that climate change is upon us, along with advances in technology, there are new ways to stay cool while conserving energy and cutting carbon emissions at the same time. Several products showcased this week at the Edison Electric Institute conference  in San Francisco seem to have the potential to do just that.

Take SmartMeter, for instance. The program from PG&E will monitor and control home energy use by satellite, and adjust energy consumption accordingly by supply and demand via a few palm-sized monitors. Right now, it’s still in demonstration mode. But PG&E will offer voluntary enrollment in 2010, and aims to outfit all households by 2012, according to Peter Chan, a PG&E supervisor in Demand Response Operations (“demand response” is industry-speak for systems that can adjust electrical use at the consumer end). Redistributing energy as needed avoids the need to bring peak generators online. Customers lower their energy bills and can also override the system if, say, that load of laundry really needs to go into the dryer now.

The Ice Bear aims to reduce the energy needed to cool low-rise buildings (under 3 stories), using rooftop energy storage that works in conjunction with the building’s air conditioning system. Developed by Windsor, CO-based Ice Energy, a rectangular unit about the size of a sub-compact car sits on the roof and stores energy at night. It releases the energy during peak daytime periods.

The company claims that using off-peak stored power during peak hours reduces carbon emissions by 40%. And the key technology is–well, ice. Major components include a block of ice threaded with a network of copper coils designed to keep the ice from melting, a condenser that makes the ice, and a controller that achieves the building’s thermostat level most efficiently in conjunction with the building’s air conditioning system. The unit uses R410, a refrigerant which the company says is more efficient than more commonly used refrigerants such as R-22. The system comes with a price tag topping $8000 but utilities are apparently bullish on Ice Bear and have bought thousands of units–13,000-15,000 units can conserve up to 50 megawatts, according to company spokeswoman Therese Wells.

The conference also featured previews of potential “game-changing” technologies. PG&E panelist and Director of Emerging Clean Technologies Hal La Flash told the audience about a solar “nantenna,” a flexible panel that may replace solar panels in the future. And Mike Howard, Senior Vice President of Research & Development at the Electric Power Research Institute, spoke of being 5-to-10 years away from the debut of LED lighting that has the potential to be even more energy efficient than compact fluorescent bulbs.