Is New Jersey Finally Getting Smarter About Smart Meters?

BPU authorizes Rockland Electric to deploy smart meters in homes of 74,000 customers, a first for a Garden State utility

smart meter
New Jersey is finally embracing smart meters. Well, maybe.

Rockland Electric won approval last week from regulators to install smart meters in the homes of its 74,000 customers, the first time a utility has been given the go-ahead to put the two-way enhanced-communication devices into use in New Jersey.

Smart meters offer a multitude of benefits. Commonplace in other states — there are more than 65 million smart meters installed nationwide — they can help customers better manage energy use and reduce their bills.

“With new, smart meters, Rockland Electric’s customers can cut energy waste, boost renewables, and take control of their energy use and costs,’’ said Mary Barber, a clean-energy advocate for the Environmental Defense Fund. “This investment in smart infrastructure will improve the grid’s reliability and resiliency, deliver cleaner air and better health, and accelerate New Jersey’s clean-energy economy.’’

Known as the Advanced Metering Infrastructure program, the devices also boost reliability and cut the length of outages by notifying the utility quickly when power is lost. They also are good for the environment, reducing energy waste and better integrating cleaner energy options like solar and wind into the electric grid.

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But not in New Jersey. The state ranks 47th in the nation in the use of smart meters, according to a recent report by the nonpartisan Center for Data Innovation in Washington, D.C.

Skeptical about smart meters

In the past, the state Board of Public Utilities, as well as the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel, have been leery of approving the use of smart meters, contending the costs outweighed the benefits. In this case, Rate Counsel argued the utility failed to prove it is a “reasonable and prudent investment.’’

In approving Rockland Electric’s installation program, the board’s concerns were  reflected in an order laying out conditions of its authorization. The big hitch may be refusing to approve the utility’s cost for recovering its existing or so-called legacy meters, a decision that may cause Rockland Electric to decide not to install the devices.

“It’s still under review,’’ said Michael Donovan, a spokesman for Rockland Electric, referring to whether the utility will go ahead with the installation program without cost recovery. The company is supposed to let the state know by October 2 whether it will move forward.

Besides the cost-recovery issue, the state directed the utility to allow customers to retain their existing meters if they choose not to update to the AMI program. More surprising, the order includes a moratorium on other utilities stepping forward seeking to install smart meters in their territory.

That caused some head scratching. “The BPU shouldn’t be blocking the implementation statewide,’’ said Doug O’Malley, director of Environment New Jersey.

“This specific program is being authorized as a case study for advanced-metering technology that would be potentially authorized throughout the state if it is deemed prudent and useful,’’ the board order stated.

If Rockland Electric decides to move forward with the program, it plans to begin deploying the system later this year and be finished in 2019.

Rockland Electric’s cost for deployment is projected at $16.5 million; operational and management expenses over 20 years are estimated at $12 million. The utility is projecting it will save $82 million over two decades in reduced labor and outage costs.

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