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Environment & Energy

Utility Companies And Customers Can Harness At-Home Energy Usage With New Smart Meters

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Opponents say smart meters pose risks to health and civil liberties, part 2 of 3 in our series.

smart_meters_feature_3.mp3
How smart meters fit into "the internet of things," part 3 of 3 in our series.

John and Adrienne Essey own what could be Western Pennsylvania’s smartest home.

“As I adjust the slider to dim them, it tells me I’m using less wattage,” John Essey, 35, said about the lights in his Dormont home, which like door locks and appliances are connected to computer software, motion detectors and voice sensors.

“Similarly, when I run the thermostat ... it tells me how often it runs, the temperature that it’s reached, and I use those tools that are from third-party sites to manage the power data from my house.”

Essey, a systems engineer, hasn’t yet found a way to influence his electricity bills in the systems he built, but the ongoing rollout of smart meters and related technology by Western Pennsylvania utilities soon could make that easier.

A goal among some utilities — which were ordered by state law to install meters that can measure electricity use hourly instead of monthly — is to start charging rates that are more expensive at peak hours and less during times of low demand.

“What smart meters allow us to do is not only monitor (usage), but then control how we might want to automate some of our electricity usage to take advantage of lower costs during the nighttime, such as maybe setting your dishwasher or your washing machine to go off at 2 a.m. and do that load rather than at 3 in the afternoon when pricing is highest,” said Greg Reed, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh and director of its Center for Energy and Electric Power Initiative.

Time-of-day pricing and its potential to level the peaks and valleys of supply and demand that strain America’s aging grid are among several benefits touted by advocates and utilities, which are spending billions on the meters and equipment.

The meters that Duquesne Light and the FirstEnergy companies started installing last year will send more frequent, detailed data on each home’s or business’s electricity consumption wirelessly to the utilities, which will then share it with individual customers.

Data protection

That huge increase in data, wireless technology and questions around sharing it worry opponents.

Lisa Nancollas of Lewistown has organized an effort to repeal the law that directed utilities to install the meters, Act 129 of 2008. She worries about potential health effects from their radio signals, isolated cases of the units catching fire, and data security. Regulators say the equipment is safe.

Lee Tien, senior staff attorney at the San Fransisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, cautions that data thieves, law enforcement and merchants will get their hands on what he called a “firehose of information” that will come from the meters.

The utilities say there’s no need to worry.

“It’s important to note that while the volume of data that we’re receiving from customers is changing, the type of data that we’re receiving is not,” said Diane Francis, spokeswoman for Akron, Ohio-based FirstEnergy, which owns West Penn and Penn Power. It has installed more than 92,000 meters since August, starting in Cranberry and heading north.

Francis and officials at Downtown-based Duquesne Light said data transmitted from meters to receiving towers are stripped of names and addresses, containing only customer codes that are meaningless outside their databases.

“All of the data is encrypted, it is very secure, and ... we followed national standards in the design and deployment of the network,” said Mark Miko, chief information officer at Duquesne Light, which hopes to turn on its network of smart meters between Bellevue and Aliquippa when it reaches 30,000 customers this summer.

State Public Utility Commission regulations forbid utilities from sharing information on customers’ usage without their consent, said Commissioner Pamela Witmer.

Cost management

The commission approved customer surcharges to help cover the costs of the meters. Duquesne Light customers pay about 36 cents a month, spreading the cost out over years.

Customers will get detailed reports on usage and information on how to reduce it. Act 129 was aimed at cutting electricity use overall.

“So yes, we’re encouraging our customers to use less of our product and that means we need to better manage our costs over time and also look for opportunities to be more efficient both with our dollars and with the rates our customers pay us,” said David Fisfis, vice president and general counsel at Duquesne Light.

The utilities expect to recoup some costs through management tools the smarter grid will provide. When dealing with power outages, utilities will know which homes are out of service, instead of just general areas where service crews now might waste time looking for problems.

“Before that crew leaves, we’re going to know that that house is out and we can restore it, which is an efficiency from our viewpoint to because we don’t have to circle back later on,” said Michele Sandoe, vice president for customer care at Duquesne Light.

FirstEnergy identified $410 million in savings from the program and expects to pass those savings to customers, Francis said.

Moving to a time-of-day pricing model could benefit consumers and utilities, Reed said. Customers could cut their bills by using less electricity during those peak hours when rates are higher.

If that lowers the peaks and “levels the load” on the grid, “we can really begin to reduce the price of generation overall and maybe even delay the building of new power plants over time because of the way that we’re managing this,” Reed said.

Editor's Note: David Conti, a staff writer for Trib Total Media, contributed to this report, which was produced in collaboration with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Reach him at 412-388-5802 or dconti@tribweb.com.