State Still Not Sold on Smart Metering for Utility Customers

Tom Johnson | March 7, 2018 | Energy & Environment
Lawmakers table smart-meter bill until results in for modest deployment program at Rockland Electric

smart meter
The state is still having a lot of trouble making a decision about smart meters and whether they would benefit millions of utility customers.

Poised to order state officials to require utilities to install smart meters at customers’ homes, lawmakers tabled a bill this week to allow an agency to study how well a modest program involving Rockland Electric fares.

The move by the Senate Environment and Energy Committee frustrated clean-energy advocates and others, many of whom have been pressing policymakers to get serious about installing the devices, dubbed ”electricity with a brain,” in homes for years.

Installed in about half of the nation’s homes, smart meters offer customers a multitude of benefits — helping them better manager their energy use and reduce monthly bills. They also may help utilities pinpoint power outages, responding and restoring power more quickly.

But not in New Jersey, at least not yet.

In the past, both the state Board of Public Utilities, as well as the New Jersey Division of Rate Counsel, have been reluctant to embrace smart meters, questioning whether the cost of installing the devices, along with the communications and other requisite technologies, outweigh the benefits.

Last fall, however, the BPU approved a $16.5 million plan to install the meters at Rockland Electric’s 74,000 customers. The agency wants to conduct a case study on how well the program succeeds with the state’s smallest utility before being required to deploy the technologies at other utilities as proposed in legislation (S-603).

But Mary Barber, a clean-energy advocate for the Environmental Defense Fund, argued it made no sense to delay accelerating the transition to smart meters.

Robert Gibbs, director of corporate and regulatory affairs for Direct Energy, agreed. “Waiting just does not make sense,” Gibbs said, comparing it to studying offshore wind, a technology in use overseas for 25 years.

Others, however, backed holding off. Sarah Bluhm, a lobbyist for the New Jersey Business & Industry Association, said the delay could afford time on integrating the technology with other new policies being contemplated, such as renewable energy.

The debate over smart meters occurs as the state is considering a big shift in energy policies by relying on renewable energy to provide much of the electricity now generated by conventional centralized power plants. The transformation likely will incur huge new costs, since the power grid must integrate intermittent sources of electricity like solar and wind energy.

As part of that evolution, clean-energy advocates say it will require a smarter and more resilient power grid.