by Angela Chagnon
The Burlington Electric Department held an open house on June 16 and 17 for Burlington residents to look over Smart Grid/Smart Meter equipment and technology and to ask questions about the new system. Several BED officials and representatives of Itron, a company based in Spokane, Washington, which is the Smart Meter manufacturer BED will be contracting with, stood by to speak with attendees.
One of Itron’s partners for the Smart Grid project is the Lockheed Martin Corporation, which operates Sandia National Laboratories. Sandia is working with Vermont to implement Smart Grid/Smart Meters statewide (see previous story here).
The Smart Meters that BED plans to distribute in Burlington will transmit data wirelessly to about 25 transmitters that will be placed throughout the city. These transmitters, each about 20 feet tall, will function like cell phone towers to send the collected data on to the utility’s database.
James Gibbons, a Resource Planner with BED, explained that Smart Meters contain two radio transmitters – one transmits general energy usage information for a household to one of the transmitters located around the city, and the other, a ZigBee radio, monitors appliance use within a household. Gibbons said that BED had requested that the ZigBee transmitters be disabled, and only turned on if the homeowner volunteers to participate. However, the Public Service Department (PSD) has not yet authorized that exception.
According to Gibbons, the utility will read the meters about three times a day, once every 8 hours. He said that the PSD is pushing to have data read every 5 minutes.
When asked if residents would be allowed to opt out of receiving the meter, Gibbons answered, “That has not been determined by Vermont.”
Other communities around the country have been allowed to opt out, however those who choose not to participate are forced to pay higher rate fees for not having a Smart Meter, as is currently done in Maine.
Tim Wolf, Director of Consumer Outreach with Itron, said that Itron was one of several Smart Meter manufacturers and had successfully tested their product in Texas. The manufacturer currently has meters in parts of Los Angeles, San Diego (San Diego Gas and Electric or SDG&E), and Detroit.
Wolf explained that the meters, which are a “measurement and communication device”, are meant to work with customers to change customers’ behavior during peak use times. The alleged purpose of the meter is to notify a ratepayer of peak load times so the customer will be able to choose whether to turn off certain appliances or pay more to use the appliances during peak load time.
Many appliance manufacturers are placing ZigBee chips into appliances so that the chip can communicate with the Smart Meter and supply readings of that appliance’s energy use to the consumer and the utility company, said Wolf. He also pointed out that the chip will enable appliances to be programmed to run only when energy is cheapest, which will be done through a system he called “internet for energy”. Wolf stressed that this technology is not currently in place, but will be in the near future.
Gadgets to monitor household energy use, connected to the Smart Meter via a “Home Area Network” (HAN), will be able to measure individual appliance energy usage. The meter can be used to shut off appliances through this network during peak energy use.
When asked if it was technologically possible for utilities to shut off individual appliances using the HAN, an Itron representative said that it would be possible, but didn’t think that utilities would go that far. He said the network was meant for customers to be able to remotely shut off appliances if they didn’t want to pay peak use rates.
Another aspect of the Smart Grid/Smart Meter system will be an intricate online system that customers will use to pay their electric bills and to monitor their energy usage. Customers who wish to have detailed energy bills will have the option to fill out an online form that lists every appliance the customer wants to be monitored. For instance, if a customer wants the energy usage of his non-ZigBee implanted refrigerator measured, he must fill out the manufacturer, model, year, etc. of the appliance and the utility will estimate what that appliance has used for energy within the last billing cycle.
A somewhat Orwellian feature of this internet-based system is that customers will be able to check the individual household energy usage levels of other customers. BED says that the collection of data to be made public will be voluntary.
The Smart Grid/Smart Meter system will require the public to place a lot of trust in their utility companies. The ability of utility companies to collect such detailed data, whether voluntary or not, raises privacy concerns. What will happen should regulators wish to revoke the voluntary option for customers? How will utilities be stopped from collecting this data once the Smart Meters are in place?
Unfortunately many utility companies that are implementing Smart Meters don’t have a great track record when it comes to customer choice and satisfaction, as these news stories reveal: