NJ Frets Over Smart-Grid Technologies, While U.S., Other Countries Move Ahead

Tom Johnson | February 28, 2013 | Energy & Environment
'Electricity with a brain,' advocates argue, is critical component to weathering superstorms and other extreme events

New Jersey may not be rushing to embrace smart meters, but the United States and the rest of the world are investing billions of dollars into making the power grid more resilient through the use of smart-grid technologies.

Global investments in smart-grid technologies totaled $13.9 billion in 2012, according to a study by the Worldwatch Institute. The United States. once again led the way, despite a 19 percent drop in investment, spending $4.3 billion on smart grids, according to the report.

A smart grid — aka “electricity with a brain’’ — according to some advocates —
is a planned nationwide network that uses information and communications technologies to deliver electricity more efficiently and reliably. The latter concern has garnered nationwide attention as extreme weather has left millions of people without power.

The drop in U.S. investment was blamed on the drying up of funding from the federal stimulus act pushed through by the Obama administration, according to the study.

Still, the report noted that one-third of American households already had smart meters installed by the end of 2012, and that number should jump to 65 million units installed by 2015, covering about 57 percent of households.

“Smart meters are just one of the many technologies involved in smart-grid infrastructure,’’ said Reese Rogers, author of the study. “These electronic measurement devices gather data on energy usage and provide two-way communication with the utility for efficiency and accurate billing purposes.’’

The technology has been widely embraced in the European Union, where 80 percent of households are on track to have smart meters by 2020 under certain conditions. The United Kingdom plans to install smart meters in all households by 2019.

In New Jersey, however, there is a lot of resistance to the technology.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, some lawmakers have proposed bills that would require smart meters to be installed, although one measure would allow homeowners to opt out.

But the measures have met with opposition from consumer advocates, including the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel.

“It is not going to help us in terms of reducing big outages,’’ Division of Rate Counsel Director Stefanie Brand told a legislative committee in January. “You’re talking about the cost of billions of dollars just to let utilities know when customers are out.’’

Utility executives have acknowledged that smart meters will not solve all the reliability problems in New Jersey. But during major outages, the technology would improve communication between electric companies and local officials. The call on whether to install the meters, however, should be made by policymakers, most utility executives have said.

Meanwhile, some utilities are proposing other ways to make the power grid smarter. In a filing last week, Public Service Electric & Gas proposed spending $454 million to deploy smart grid technologies that would better monitor system operations, thus increasing its ability to rapidly dispatch repair teams.