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Utility groups face tough sell with some on 'smart meters'

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By Jeremy Johnson

 BRIGHTON — Northern Front Range utility provider United Power is one of the latest companies to begin transitioning to smart meters, remotely accessed tracking devices praised by utility companies for convenience but considered by some critics to be flawed or even dangerous.

According to Laurel Eller, communications specialist for United Power, theutility firm serving about 70,000 Northern Front Range homes and businesses, the latest phase in the implementation of the company’s advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) is not just about embracing smart technology, but also making smart business decisions.

“This is simply the latest in meter technology available, and we’re slowly upgrading as we go,” Eller said. “Any time we replace meters or upgrade, we are obviously going to put in the newest technology.”

But that “new technology” – specifically smart meters – has been criticized by opponents and in myriad online and print news reports as a potential health and safety hazard and an invasion of customers’ privacy.

So, that leaves the question: Who will be the wiser when, or if, smart meters become the norm?

Smart meters, smart business practices

United Power CEO Ron Asche sang the praises of smart metering in an article published in February, shortly after the utility company agreed to a 10-year contract with engineering, health and national security solutions firm, Leidos, for the implementation of 20,000 meters to support United Power’s metering project. 

That contract came on the heels of a “successful” pilot program launched about three years earlier in the Coal Creek Canyon area, in what Eller described as the company’s most “remote and rugged” service area.

Since that time, United Power has been gradually installing the meters at what Eller said are service area locations farthest from the company’s Brighton headquarters. As a result, those United Power customers in Brighton and Commerce City won’t see smart meters installed for another couple of years, Eller added.

“We chose to start with the most northern and mountain areas because of their proximity to the office headquarters,” she said. “It takes longer to roll a truck from Brighton … and that increases trip expenses.”

Eller said, by reducing those travel expenses, the company is better able to maintain rates rather than pass additional costs onto customers.

And in the February article published by PRNewswire, Asche said the system’s analytical abilities could also save the company — and customers — some hard-earned cash.

“Leidos’ SGS (Smart Grid as a Service) solution has allowed United Power to reduce costs, enhance efficiencies and proceed with the AMI deployment,” Asche said.

“The analytical capabilities of SGS are enabling us to better understand our infrastructure and proactively address potential problems.”

But some critics, like former cop and firefighter and current federal government employee Brad Brown, of Fort Lupton, wonder if the smart meters might be too smart for their own good, or create more problems than they solve.

Where the power lies

Brown said his issue with smart meters is not based on misinformation, like so many other opponents, but rather a lack of good information.

“The Internet is abundant with people that are afraid of the installation of those meters because of junk theories and misinformation,” Brown said, citing online conspiracy theories that the meters transmit harmful radio waves or can allow utility companies to spy on their customers. “The public needs to be aware of what is driving the need for these meters and what the up and down sides are to them.”

Brown admits that the potential upsides touted by utility companies and smart meter makers have some merit, including cost savings from reduced meter reading positions and those travel expenses tied to the antiquated practice; reduced travel costs in terms of shutting services off and on; and the ability to log and analyze data in order to recognize peak demand and avoid overloading power grids.

But that same data collected could also lead companies to apply more stringent and opportunistic demand-side management practices, which Brown and some others see as a way for power companies to force the hand of consumers by charging more for power consumed during peak times – for instance, during hot summer days. In that way, Brown said power companies would have customers “over a barrel.”

“My position is, ‘I pay for electricity that I use,’” Brown said. “If the demand metering multiplier is going to be used, then you are paying for electricity that you are not using.”

Metering a part of “normal operations”

Eller, however, made no mention of United Power’s implementation of its advanced metering infrastructure as a way to increase rates.

Rather, Eller said the company is “a long way out” from fully implementing their program, and added they are only trying to cut operational costs so they can maintain rates.

“Our meters are only going in as part of our regular update and maintenance operations,” she said. “It’s a longer process for us because … we’re not increasing rates to add new meters. Metering is just, technically, part of our normal operational expenses.”

Eller said many of the meters being replaced are so “outdated” that the technology is no longer supported and, oftentimes, manufacturers no longer carry the parts necessary for regular maintenance.

“The new meters are going to those territories farthest away or areas saturated with really outdated technology not supported by the manufacturers,” she said. “In other words, those meters were going to be replaced anyway.”

Eller said she is well aware of the bad press smart meters have gotten, and said, as a smaller company operating without federal grants, United Power is afforded the unique opportunity of dealing with concerns on a customer-by-customer basis.

“Our goal is to deal with impacted customers as they’re impacted,” she said. “There is definitely some sensitivity, and there are some (customers) who have some thoughts about the technology. We want to deal with those customers on an individual basis and we encourage them to call us. We want to make sure our customers are comfortable.” 

And while Brown said utility companies are threatening to charge extra for customers who opt out of having smart meters installed, Eller said United Power has yet to make a determination on whether they will do so.

“At this point, you can opt out,” she said. “Some companies are charging their members to do that at this time, but we haven’t made a decision on that.”

Eller did point out that, in order to get the best results from the new technology, the company would like to see “full saturation,” and added that smart meters afford many safety options not previously available.

“The new meters do give us advantages as far as service,” she said. “We can tell if a member is out of power in the mountains … where they can go for days without power sometimes. With smart meters, we can work right away to respond to that.”

Eller said, with smart meters, United Power can also track power outages to specific pieces of equipment, and can also monitor for preventative maintenance, too.

“Customers can’t see that right away, but that’s just what we’re beginning to realize,” Eller said.

“Obviously, the technology works better when saturation level is high in an area, so we’re encouraging our customers to learn more and talk to us before making the decision,” she added. “But we’re not pounding on doors and shutting down power. We don’t operate that way. We have a different approach.”

The mystery of the meter

It may take years for United Power to switch all 70,000-plus customers over to smart meters, and it may take just as long for customers to sort out the smart meter facts from fiction.

Certainly, the “junk theories” Brown alluded to are not difficult to find: Just a preliminary online search for the phrase “smart meter fires,” for instance, nets nearly 250,000 results.

Privacy is also a concern, and has prompted articles such as one titled “Is Your Smart Meter Spying on You?” on WashingtonsBlog.com. In that article, the author claims researchers found that one company’s smart meters transmitted unencrypted data over insecure links. That data, “based on the fingerprint of power usage, (was) able to tell not only whether or not the homeowners were home, away or even sleeping, but also what movie they were watching on TV.”

Hackers are one thing, but Brown isn’t buying into the idea that utility companies are trying to spy on customers.

“What use is this information to the power company?” Brown asked. “I would argue that it is useless.”

Nonetheless, those unanswered questions could hinder efforts to implement statewide smart meter regulations, and so far, only four states have passed sweeping regulations forcing consumers into advanced metering infrastructure. Fourteen other states had pending regulations as of 2013.

Kristine Hartman, energy policy specialist for the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, said she was not aware of any laws or regulations being pushed through right now in Colorado.

“It’s my understanding that some utilities or municipalities have set rules or regulations regarding the installation of smart meters, but I have not seen any statewide action,” she said.

The bevy of concerns regarding smart meters led some residents of the City of Fountain to get a measure on the ballot for last year’s elections that would ban smart meters in their municipality. But that measure failed when it was supported by only 40 percent of the voters.

Despite his skepticism, Brown said he allowed a new smart meter to be installed in his home because he saw no other choice.

“It was inevitable,” he said.

Contact Staff Writer Jeremy Johnson at 303-659-2522, ext. 217, or jjohnson@metrowestnewspapers.com.