I know I have said it at least a hundred times, but every time I discuss smart meters, I feel the need to repeat it. The smart grid is not just about smart meters. But today’s focus is on smart meters. A recent news story about a family’s smart meter experience motivated me to write this post. It serves as a reminder about the positive attributes of smart meters.

As most utilities already know, smart meters enable multi-directional power and information flows between the utility, the grid and the customer. This multi-level communication gives the utility the ability to quickly identify outages and resolve other services problems. For example, this 50 second video is a news story about how the smart meter helped save a customer’s home.

Hard to believe that prior to smart grid technology, in most cases a utility did not know there was a problem with a customer’s service until the customer called. Now utilities are addressing service issues proactively or before a problem cascades, improving reliability. Not meant to be an exhaustive list, a few other smart meter benefits often include:

  • More data. Customers will have the ability to go online to see a detailed history of their energy usage and costs. Depending on the utility, they may be able to view hourly electric consumption and then compare their usage to last week, last month or even last year. This is valuable information that can help you make informed energy choices.
  • The utility’s operations will become more efficient, including allowing customers to start or switch electric service quickly.
  • Meters will be read remotely. By eliminating the need for a meter reader to visit a home every month, customer privacy is increased and emissions are reduced.
  • Job creation. While the meter reader job will be eliminated, may other jobs will be created to support the new infrastructure. This includes jobs related to the labor required to manufacture, install and maintain the smart meters; the construction and maintenance of communications infrastructure; and the creation of computer hardware and software. Again, this leads to potential energy conservation and reduction of emissions.

The Public Utility Commission of Texas (“Commission”) says that after years of vetting smart meter deployment through public hearings, workshops and four contested cases, no one objected to orders requiring full deployment and cost recovery of advanced meters. And when health and safety concerns were subsequently raised, the Commission evaluated these issues and concluded they were unwarranted. As a result, smart meters are standard in Texas. Usually this provides regulatory certainty.

But for an industry that provides for eminent domain, things have gotten interesting. For example, approximately 40 of more than 2.2 million of CenterPoint Energy’s customers object to smart meters and want the right to opt-out…and they are going to get it. For less than 0.002% of its customer base, CenterPoint must retain someone to read meters and put trucks on the road for move-ins/move-outs and other related services. They have to do this because the Texas Public Utility Commission recently decided that although smart meters are standard and safe, public interest requires transmission and distribution utilities to offer alternative metering to those who want to decline the benefits of advanced meters. This month new amendments were adopted to provide for Non-Standard Metering Service commonly known as opt-out. The new rules:

  • Require a transmission and distribution utility (“TDU”) to provide non-standard or alternative metering service.
  • Require the TDU to obtain and retain written customer acknowledgement regarding the negative consequences of opting-out.
  • Allows the TDU to separately charge for the costs associated with opting-out.

Regulatory certainty?

In the past, customer education typically meant nothing more than a bill insert and perhaps an additional public notice. Then came the smart grid and suddenly more is required… much more. Ameren Illinois conducted a quantitative study to measure its customers’ baseline awareness about AMI. Key findings revealed:

  • 63% of customers have heard the term “smart grid.”
    Among the 63% hearing the term:
    • 40% don’t know much about what it means
    • 34% have a favorable impression
    • 29% are neutral
    • 16% have an unfavorable impression
    • 21% don’t know
  • 45% of customers have heard the term “smart meter.”
    Among the 45% hearing the term:
    • 25% of those who have heard the term don’t know much about what it means
    • 35% have a favorable impression
    • 28% are neutral
    • 23% have an unfavorable impression
    • 14% don’t know
  • 46% of all customers feel that smart meters would be “mostly an advantage,”
  • 40% seeing the meters as “having no impact,” and
  • 8% as “mostly a disadvantage.”

Customers indicated that improving reliability, bill accuracy and customer service and providing them with more control of home energy usage as the top smart meter benefits. The study will help guide the development of Ameren’s stakeholder and customer education plan. You can learn more about Ameren’s plan and ComEd’s plan by reading their Annual AMI Reports filed with the Illinois Commerce Commission on April 1, 2013. Ameren and ComEd also filed jobs creation reports as a result of the Energy Infrastructure Modernization Act.

On January 24, 2013, the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (“PaPUC”) entered orders dismissing two formal complaints filed by PECO customers requesting to opt-out of smart meters. In the Theresa Gavin v PECO Energy Company case and Maria Povacz v PECO Energy Company, the Commission’s Orders adopt the Initial Decisions (“ID”) issued by the ALJs. In support of dismissing the complaints, here are some of the interesting points the orders make (emphasis added):

  • Section 2807(f)(2) of the Public Utility Code, states

(2) Electric distribution companies shall furnish smart meter technology as follows:
(i) Upon request from a customer that agrees to pay the cost of the smart meter at the time of the request.
(ii) In new building construction.
(iii) In accordance with a depreciation schedule not to exceed 15 years.

  • In 66 Pa. C.S. §2807(f)(2), the use of the word “shall” in the statute indicates the General Assembly’s direction that all customers will receive a smart meter. The statute does not have a provision for customers to “opt out” of the smart meter installation. 
  • The Commission has interpreted current law to require smart meter installation. The Commission cannot regulate in violation of a statute.
  • Pennsylvania electric utilities are following the law by not permitting customers to opt-out.

Yes, there are some jurisdictions who have said no to opt-out. Maybe this will be a new trend.

With all the hype about smart meters, it is easy to forget that the smart grid is so much more. Today’s post is a refreshing break from the opt-out drama and provides insight into other innovations of the smart grid. Smart City San Diego and the San Diego Zoo recently announced they will install a solar photovoltaic canopy that will charge electric vehicles (EV) in the Zoo parking lot. The Solar-to-EV project began construction on September 4. One of the first of its kind in the region, the project will harness energy from the sun to directly charge plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs), store solar power for future use and provide renewable energy to the surrounding community. 

Located at the iconic San Diego Zoo in the heart of the city’s world-renowned Balboa Park, the Solar-to-EV project will serve as a new energy infrastructure blueprint that can be replicated throughout the region and beyond. At peak production, the Solar-to-EV project will produce enough energy to power 59 homes. The clean energy produced is equivalent to removing 189,216 pounds of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year, or the same as planting 2,788 trees annually. For additional comparison, the greenhouse gas emissions savings from the electricity produced is equivalent to removing 21 cars from the road each year. Furthermore, PEVs when driven on electricity offer zero tailpipe emissions and no emissions overall when the electricity is directly from solar power.

Meanwhile, a few time zones away, the Black Bear Solar Institute is doing its part to help establish a Green Gateway to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, bridging the gap between the Interstate Highways and major metropolitan areas of Tennessee to the National Park Gateway Community of Townsend, TN, with Electric Vehicle charging stations, enabling EV drivers to visit the National Park powered by clean, renewable solar-generated electricity. This unique nonprofit organization was selected to install charging stations at the Talley Ho Inn and the Carriage House Restaurant in Townsend, TN, as well as many others in the area. This is not only environmentally friendly but is also a strategic move that will encourage the growing number of electric vehicle owners to make these establishments a stop on a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains.

Like the San Diego Zoo’s project, the Black Bear Solar Institute is also participating in the U.S. Department of Energy’s EV Project. Our industry is a bevy of acronyms. Here are a few basics as explained on the EV Project’s website:

What is an EV? – The term “EV” is used to denote all grid-connected electric vehicles, including plug-in hybrid (PHEV), range-extended (REEV) and battery electric vehicles (BEV).

What is a BEV? – A BEV, or battery electric vehicle, is a vehicle powered by an electric motor. BEVs run on batteries charged by electricity, similar to cell phones or digital cameras. Because BEVs run purely on electric charges, they emit no tailpipe emissions, making them a clean, environmentally friendly driving option. With the EV Project, consumers are able to charge their vehicles at home and on-the-go with our strategically placed charging stations. The Nissan LEAF is a BEV.

What is a PHEV? – A PHEV, or plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, has both an electric battery and a gasoline engine. PHEVs run on an electric charge and convert to gasoline when the battery runs down.

The EV Project’s website provides a wealth of information regarding electric vehicles. My favorite is the link to a cool blinking map that shows charging stations across the US. The grid is looking smarter already.

Two years after providing approval to Florida Power and Light to install smart meters, the Florida Public Service Commission has decided to have a public workshop regarding the devices due to public outcry. Scheduled for September 20, 2012, the workshop will give the public the opportunity to provide comments regarding smart meters. The Commission has also directed its staff to gather additional insight about the technology, policies, jurisdiction, costs and benefits of smart meters. The information will be compiled and brought back to the Commissioners for further discussion. In its quest for information, the utility is asking some very good questions that any utility seeking smart meter deployment should be addressing. Below are the documents requested in Smart Meter Data
Request #1

30. Please provide copies of any material(s) given to customers on smart meters.

31. Please provide any call center scripts on smart meters or smart meter opt-out.

32. Please provide any materials given to customers in response to their concerns about the health effects from smart meters.

33. Please provide the procedures for smart meter installation used by either the utility or contractors.

34. Please provide copies of any FCC regulations that smart meters must comply with.

My view is that public workshops and smart grid education in general are a great idea. Extensive consumer engagement has been a lesson learned the hard way for the trailblazers in an industry where consumer education is typically providing regulatory notices and bill inserts. For some reason, the smart meter is different and more is required. Given the ease with which information is available today, if utilities don’t educate their customers, someone else will. While the magnitude and message need to be balanced with the deployment schedule, I am of the general view that education should precede installation.

The Maine Public Utility Commission shocked the industry when it was one of the first states to open an opt-out investigation and subsequently order a smart meter opt-out. Despite taking these steps that many in the utility industry disagree with, the Maine Supreme Judicial Court recently told the MPUC it failed to adequately address the health and safety concerns raised regarding smart meters. This stems from an appeal taken by a customer of Central Maine Power over a dismissed complaint regarding the Commission’s opt-out order.

The complaint by 19 CMP customers requested a new investigation due to “new and important evidence specifically addressing non-ionizing radiation of the type emitted by smart meters.” The complaint states there was a May 31, 2011 press release from the World Health Organization that classified RF radiation as possibly carcinogenic to humans. The Appellate Court held the Commission erred in dismissing the complaint because it did not adequately address the health and safety concerns. The MPUC concluded the appropriate entity to consider potential RF health impacts is the FCC in consultation with the Food and Drug Administration. In spite of conducting an investigation, the Commission made no determination on the merits of health, safety, privacy or security concerns regarding wireless smart meters. Without considering the health and safety issues, the Court concluded the Commission could not find the opt-out fee was not reasonable.

Despite the yo-yo effect, this decision will be beneficial to utilities in the long run. It will finally force the industry to engage in independent research to address the health concerns. Then maybe we can all live smart.

I recently had the opportunity to interview the Chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission, Robert F. Powelson, regarding his views on smart meter opt-outs and other issues affecting Pennsylvania’s energy future. Because I live and practice in Pennsylvania, I may be biased but I think Smart Grid Legal News readers will agree it is refreshing and rare to hear regulators like Chairman Powelson promote smart meters, energy efficiency and other practices that advance our energy future.

Evers: Chairman Powelson, thank you for taking the time to discuss smart meters with me. Why is it important for customers to have smart meters?

Powelson: Act 129 of 2008 has really paved the way for the rollout of smart meters, also referred to as Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI), and the implementation of Act 129 continues to benefit Pennsylvania customers. As I see it, smart meter technology is a “win-win” situation for the Commonwealth – both electricity customers and electricity providers alike reap the benefits of advanced meters. 

Smart meters give customers greater control over their energy consumption by allowing them to measure their energy usage, monitor real-time electricity prices, and adjust their consumption and behavior in order to realize significant savings on monthly bills. Customers can even shut down appliances during peak periods or pre-program appliances and devices to operate only at predetermined (and lower cost) timeframes if they so choose.

Similarly, electricity providers also benefit from increased smart meter deployment. The two key concepts here are efficiency and reliability. AMI makes meter reading quicker and more efficient by eliminating the current practice of estimated meter readings. Additionally, with smart meters, utilities have the ability to monitor distribution networks to allow for the immediate detection of irregularities, which leads to drastically reduced response time in addressing outages. 

Finally, smart meters can help reduce both overall electricity use and peak demand use, leading to lower emissions from fossil power plants that will not have to generate as much power – a direct environmental benefit.

Evers: Chairman, across the country several states have implemented an opt-out process due to customers concerns about health and privacy. I am concerned about the impact of an opt-out process as people relocate in and out of homes with smart meters. I call it a smart meter mosaic. I joke that real estate disclosure forms will soon have to start indicating the home’s level of smartness. Seriously, I think the implementation and long-term management of such a process could eventually put upward pressure on rates for everyone. What are your views regarding a smart meter opt-out process?

Powelson: In May, I testified before the Pennsylvania House of Representatives Consumer Affairs Committee on a proposal to partially repeal Act 129 and permit smart meter “opt-out” programs in the Commonwealth. My testimony addressed two pieces of legislation – House Bill 2186, which would allow consumers to opt out of having smart meters installed at their premises, and House Bill 2188, which would require consumer consent in order to share information from electric meters with government agencies. These bills represent a significant step backward in policy, with the potential to negate all of the reductions already achieved under Act 129.

The proliferation of opt-out requirements for AMI deployment has the potential to cripple efforts to modernize grid technology. Maine has received a lot of attention regarding its AMI opt-out, and Central Maine Power (CMP) has considered, analyzed and provided substantial cost information relating to a variety of potential solutions or mitigation measures for customers seeking to opt out of CMP’s Smart Meter Program. CMP estimates these incremental infrastructure and support costs to be as high as $70 million over the life of the AMI project – and that is assuming only 1 to 2 percent of CMP customers opt out. At an opt-out level of 10 percent, these incremental costs grow to hundreds of millions of dollars – exceeding the costs of CMP’s advanced meter project.

While I appreciate that there are consumers who have security and privacy concerns with respect to AMI, the PUC, legislature, and Electric Distribution Companies (EDCs) may be able to help alleviate these concerns through increased education and outreach. It is worth noting that many EDCs and their customers have had AMI in place for years, namely PPL and PECO. Additionally, we are already facilitating the continued implementation of smart grid technology by establishing rules that more precisely address conduct in the areas of reliability, privacy and security. California and Ontario have undertaken similar efforts through a “Privacy by Design” rulebook, which was integral to customer support for advanced meter roll out.

In sum, opt-outs cause operational gaps that will lead to additional costs for companies and their customers, defeating the stated purposes of Act 129. Such a system reduces reliability for all customers, as well as the benefits of a completely modernized electric grid. Simply put, there is no compelling reason for an “opt-out” program.

Evers: Smart meters have received a lot of attention but there is so much more to the concept of smart grid. Beyond smart meters, what do you see as other benefits as utilities upgrade their systems?

Powelson: Nationally, billions of dollars are being invested in smart grid technology because of the many benefits to consumers and utilities, as well as the positive impact on the environment through increased energy efficiency. (By way of background, federal support for the development of smart meter systems began with the Energy Policy Act of 2005, was supplemented with passage of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, and funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 – which set aside $11 billion for the creation of a smart grid.)

For me it is not just about the technology. The most important objective is to better serve the needs of consumers and build stronger, more vibrant communities in which to live, work, and play. Smart meter and smart grid programs will be much more efficient in delivering electricity to homes and businesses; responding to outages and other emergencies; monitoring and seeking to curtail usage, especially during peak periods; preventing theft and fraud; and helping electric customers save dollars on their monthly bill. In short, the benefits to Pennsylvanians will continue to grow.

Evers: Recently many utilities have partnered with Opower and Facebook to allow customers to form teams for energy saving contests and compare energy usage with friends, hopefully creating positive peer pressure. Why are innovations like this important to our energy future?

Powelson: Any method of educating consumers and raising consumer awareness is vital. The real benefits will come when people start to realize that we are all in this together, and everyone contributing a little adds up to significant decreases in demand, which then puts a downward pressure on prices.

I particularly like this idea of comparing energy usage with neighbors and friends, as it dovetails nicely with the idea of “competition” in Pennsylvania’s electricity market. The more customers learn about competitive electricity providers, and the benefits and potential price savings available in the marketplace, the better. Increased dialogue that leads to decreased energy usage is exactly what we are looking for under Act 129.

Evers: Are there any other thoughts regarding Pennsylvania’s energy future you would like to share?

Powelson: Pennsylvania has really embraced a two-pronged approach in considering its energy future. On one hand, we are doing all that we can as regulators, providers, and consumers to comply with Act 129 and become more energy efficient. On the other hand, we are strengthening Pennsylvania’s competitive marketplace to increase competition among electric generation suppliers and produce better pricing and greater savings for the Commonwealth’s 5.6 million electric customers.

In addition to fulfilling its regulatory and oversight responsibilities, the Pennsylvania PUC will continue to educate consumers on the benefits of both energy efficiency and conservation, including smart meter technology, as well the advantages of shopping with competitive suppliers for their electric generation.

For those who have been surprised by the wave of opt-out rulings, buckle up! The California Public Utility Commission is about to begin Phase 2 of its opt-out proceedings and it promises to be a thriller. Of course the traditional issues such as cost and cost allocation will be addressed and while important, I believe these issues will be upstaged by two concepts I have yet to see explored: 1) A community
opt-out option and 2) the Americans with Disabilities Act’s Impact on Smart Meter Deployment.

In a recent ruling, Commissioner Peevey states: 

I believe that parties should brief the issue of whether the Americans with Disabilities Act or Pub. Util. Code § 453(b) limit the Commission’s ability to adopt opt-out fees for those residential customers who are required to have an analog meter for medical reasons. Consequently, parties are requested to brief the following questions. For each of the questions, the party shall cite to the specific legal or statutory authority in support of its response.

  1. Does an opt-out fee, which is assessed on every residential customer who elects to not have a wireless smart meter installed in his/her location, violate the Americans with Disabilities Act or Pub. Util. Code § 453(b)?
  2. Do the Americans with Disabilities Act or Pub. Util. Code § 453(b) limit the Commission’s ability to adopt opt-out fees for those residential customers who elect to have an analog meter for medical reasons?

Questions presented regarding the community opt-out include:

  1. Should the opt-out option be extended to local governments and communities?
  2. Will the costs associated with this option and the fees to be charged to community opt-out participants be different than those assessed for individual opt-out participants?
  3. Are there statutory or contractual restrictions associated with allowing local governments or
    multi-unit dwellings to participate in a community opt-out option?
  4. How would non-residential customers or customers who wish to have a wireless smart meter be accommodated?   

Wow! Very interesting. Quite a few additional questions immediately come to mind. Here are some of the more pressing: How will a community opt-out affect the utility’s business case, including but not limited to reliability, environmental and billing system changes? Can a community opt in once it has opted out? How many times can a community or person opt in and out?

Opening Briefs on the questions raised by the Commission are due June 29, 2012, and Reply Briefs on July 13, 2012. With pleadings this interesting, who needs a summer reading list?

In the case of BONNIE MENTH AND VICKY DAVIS, COMPLAINANTS, VS. IDAHO POWER COMPANY, RESPONDENT (Case No. IPC-E-12-04), the Idaho Public Utilities Commission dismissed the complaints finding that the complainants have not provided sufficient demonstrable, credible, factual evidence to support a finding that meters present legitimate safety or potentially inappropriate communication concerns. The Commission’s order found the AMI meters installed by Idaho Power do not have the capability to control appliances or other devices, nor initiate surveillance of electrical usage at individual customer residences. It is important to note the AMI meters installed by Idaho Power are not wireless, yet they still offer many benefits.

In its answer to the complaints, Idaho Power does a great job of explaining the cost of a potential opt-out. It also explains the many benefits of the new meters, including the ability of customers to drill down to understand their energy use. The figure below is one of the examples provided. 

Some of the operating benefits cited by Idaho Power include:

  • Elimination of billing estimations and meter read errors
  • The removal of 75 vehicles from service
  • A reduction in more than a million miles of driving each year
  • Valuable outage scoping and restoration data
  • Voltage monitoring and meter and service failure detection